The pandemic is having very unequal effects across socioeconomic groups, with vulnerable workers more at risk of losing their jobs (Chetty et al. 2020, IMF 2021). Many recent studies have argued that the crisis is causing a ‘she-cession’ in which women’s labour market outcomes and prospects have deteriorated disproportionately (Adams-Prassl et al. 2020, Albanesi and Kim 2021, Alon et al. 2020, Alon et al. 2021, Caselli et al. 2020, Fabrizio et al. 2021, and Shibata 2020, among others). Understanding and unpacking the heterogeneity and persistence of the pandemic’s effect by gender are essential to assessing both the short-term and potential medium-term effects of the crisis.
In this column, we provide a new perspective by examining the labour market impacts of the COVID-19 crisis by gender at the quarterly frequency for a large panel of 30 advanced economies and eight emerging market economies (Bluedorn et al. 2021). This is in contrast to most existing studies that focus on the US or a few advanced economies.
The extent and persistence of COVID-19 she-cessions across countries
There is a large heterogeneity in the extent and persistence of she-cessions across countries, where a she-cession is defined as a negative difference between the percent changes of women’s and men’s employment rates compared with 2019.1 This measure captures the relative difference in employment rate changes, since it incorporates possible base effects from women’s typically lower employment rates. Focusing on the relative gender gap changes in 2020:Q2, we see a striking degree of heterogeneity across countries, with about two-thirds of economies experiencing she-cessions (Figure 1).2 Moreover, there is significant variation across countries, in depth and existence of she-cessions. Two countries experienced relative gender gap changes greater than 5%, several saw changes above 1%, and a few were close to zero.
Figure 1 Relative gender gap changes across economies, 2020:Q2 (percent change)
Note: The chart reports the percent change in the ratio of women’s to men’s employment rate with respect to its 2019 average by country. A negative value corresponds to a she-cession.
Focusing on the evolution over time, we observe that the median country in our sample experienced a she-cession in 2020:Q2, but these subsided by 2020:Q3 (Figure 2). In our sample, we observe that 68% of countries experienced a she-cession in 2020:Q2, but by 2020:Q3, only 44% of the sample countries were in a she-cession, suggesting that the phenomenon tends to be short-lived.
Figure 2 COVID-19 relative gender gap changes over time (percent change)
Note: The chart reports the evolution of the distribution of the percent change in the ratio of women’s to men’s employment rate with respect to the 2019 average. The solid line corresponds to the median and the shaded areas to the interquartile ranges. The sample includes 38 advanced and emerging market economies.
The role of sectoral workforce composition
Other studies have shown that women are more likely to work in social sectors that require face-to-face interactions and were particularly hit by the COVID-19 crisis (Mongey et al. 2020, among others). To quantify the importance of the gender composition of the workforce across sectors, Figure 3 decomposes the relative gender gap changes into two components. First, the employment effect stemming from changes in sectoral employment, holding fixed women’s employment shares by sector.3 This captures the consequences of women’s higher pre-existing employment shares in sectors particularly hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Second, the effect of changes in gender shares of employment within sectors. This captures the extent to which women’s employment is hit harder than men’s within sectors. A negative value in this chart indicates that the relevant factor contributed to a more negative impact for women than for men, while a positive value means that the relevant factor contributed to a more negative impact for men than women.
Consistent with the previous analysis, about two-thirds of the countries (12 out of 20 in the sample) exhibit she-cessions. In 10 out of these 12 countries, changes in gender shares of sectoral employment are the driving factor. This suggests that within sectors, women experienced worse employment outcomes.
Figure 3 Sectoral decomposition of the relative gender gap change in 2020:Q2 (percentages)
Note: The chart reports the two components which sum to the average she-cession gender gap change by country. The sample is restricted to 20 European countries for which quarterly employment data by gender and sector are available. See Bluedorn et al. (2021) for more details.
Other labour market margins
The COVID-19 recession also appears to have had divergent effects by gender on other labour market margins, including the intensive margin (average hours worked) and the unemployment and labour force participation margins. Examining the intensive margin is particularly critical at the current conjuncture with the widespread deployment of short-time work schemes to preserve job links while enabling reductions in employers’ labour costs through reductions in working hours (Giupponi and Landais 2020, IMF COVID 19 Policy Tracker). The labour force participation margin may also be particularly important in understanding the labour market effects of the pandemic downturn by gender, as women may have opted out of the labour market in greater numbers to care for children who are not in school due to public health measures. Moreover, early in the COVID-19 recession, entire sectors had to shut down, leading some laid-off workers to simply cease participating in the labour market (Coibion et al. 2020).
Figure 4 Relative gender gap changes in labour market margins (percent change)
a) Average hours worked
b) Unemployment rate
c) Labour force participation rate
Note: The chart reports the evolution of the distribution of the percent change in the ratio of women’s to men’s labour market outcome, as indicated, with respect to its 2019 average. The solid line corresponds to the median, and the shaded areas to the interquartile ranges. The sample includes 38 advanced and emerging countries in panels (b) and (c), whereas it includes 19 European Union countries in panel (a) due to data availability.
The evidence suggests that men have typically seen their average hours-worked fall by more than women in our sample of countries. In other words, she-cessions over the first three quarters of 2020 are far more evident along the extensive margin (employment) than the intensive margin (average hours worked) (Figure 4, panel a). Finally, she-cessions are more often reflected in larger declines in women’s than men’s labour force participation rates than relative rises in women’s unemployment rates (Figure 4, panels b-c).
This column has documented that employment she-cessions predominated across countries in the first half of 2020 with the sharp onset of the COVID-19 recession, but that there is a substantial degree of heterogeneity across countries. Moreover, she-cessions have tended to be short-lived, lasting a quarter or two on average. However, there are some potential channels by which the COVID-19 recession could have long-lasting, asymmetric, adverse effects on women’s prospects that may not be visible in recent employment trends. For instance, some recent surveys suggest that women are more likely to be rethinking medium-term career paths in light of the pandemic (Romei 2021).
Some of the cross-country differences in the gender gap changes during the COVID-19 recession documented above may reflect deeper structural factors at play, including the gender composition of sectoral employment, the availability of affordable childcare alternatives, and employment regulations with differential impacts by gender. To reduce these gaps, policymakers could aim to ensure that affordable and reliable childcare options are available (whether privately or publicly provided); that family leave is available for equitable use by men and women (recognising evolving gender roles); that there is flexibility in work hours across sectors and occupations as job requirements allow; and that retraining opportunities are available to help workers adapt to permanent shifts in the labor market caused by the pandemic.
Authors’ note: The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.
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1 More specifically, a she-cession is a worsening of the relative gender gap in employment rates, defined as the ratio of women’s to men’s employment rate. See Bluedorn et al. 2021 for the formal definition of a she-cession using this and an alternative measure based on the absolute difference between women’s and men’s employment rate (employment-to-population ratio) changes compared with 2019 (that is, women are losing more jobs than men as a share of population).
2 We focus on 2020:Q2 as it is the trough of the pandemic recession. See Bluedorn et al. (2021) for more details.
3 This part of the analysis is based on 20 European countries for which we have quarterly employment data by gender and sector. Sectors are classified according to NACE Rev. 4.