Women have come a long way in the labor force.
Much of women’s gains have consisted of steady progress in education, labor force participation, and earnings. But historical events have also played a role, including the surge in their labor force participation during World War II.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic might mark another such event for women’s progress.
A silver lining of the devastating virus might be a leap forward in flexible jobs and family-friendly workplaces that women have been working decades to achieve.
That might seem counterintuitive, since women initially experienced more job losses and disproportionately had to cut back on work to care for children, whose schools and day care facilities were closed.
But now that women have largely recovered, relative to men, they may be poised to experience significant gains in the labor market.
Why is that?
Consider what happened during World War II. The exodus of working men to fight in the war required employers to seek women to fill their workforces.
After the war, about half of the women drawn into the workforce by the war remained in the workforce, causing a permanent jump in women’s work opportunities and earnings.
Similarly, the health risks of close physical contact during COVID-19 forced employers to adopt remote-work technology. And school and day care closures required employers to become more accommodating to employees’ personal and family situations.
Many of the changes in remote technology and family-friendly policies necessitated by COVID-19 will stick around for the long haul.
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In particular, employers are likely to keep in place more flexible and remote-work options—both because many of those policies haven’t hurt, and might have even helped their productivity, and because if they fail to meet employees’ desires, they won’t be able to attract and retain the workforce they need.
To date, one of the biggest explanations for why women, writ large, make less than men is that women—namely, mothers—desire fewer hours and more workplace flexibility.
Oftentimes, women give up higher-level positions that require a lot of time in the office for less-demanding positions that give them the flexibility to spend more time at home.
As employers increase flexible work options, it’s less likely that women who have a greater preference for such options will have to give up as much pay to achieve them. Men will also have the added flexibility to take on more household duties, potentially easing women’s caregiving duties and making it easier for them to pursue their work desires.
Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin is well-known for her research on gender differences in the labor market, and she attributes some of the largest pay gaps to the ease of substituting any one worker in a given occupation for another worker in the same occupation.
Pharmacists, for example, can easily substitute for one another, and there’s little pay gap among them. Conversely, doctors and lawyers fill unique roles in serving their individual patients and clients, making it harder to substitute one for another.
Yet, COVID-19 may have increased substitution capabilities in even some of the most demanding jobs, such as medicine, where telehealth has become more widespread and increased digitization of records makes it easier for one doctor to take over for another.
As this trend continues across industries, the high costs associated with shifting between workers to allow for less-demanding hours should shrink, further leading toward pay equality.
While government responses to COVID-19 softened the initial blow for both men’s and women’s employment and income losses, it has largely been the lifting of government-imposed restrictions and government-imposed school closures that’s caused women’s employment and earnings to bounce back relative to men’s.
That suggests that less government—not more—is the key to improving opportunities for women in the workforce, both immediately and in the future.
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