For the first time in history, the US is in a “shecession” – an economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men. The term was coined by C Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a thinktank.
Mason put forward the term to highlight the disproportionate impact of this economic downturn on women. More than 11 million women have lost their jobs and another 2.65 million have left the workforce since February, according to an IWPR analysis of labor department data.
Mason spoke to the Guardian recently about what needs to change to get an equitable economic recovery.
What is your assessment of Congress’s discussions about an economic recovery package?
What’s frustrating about this process for me is that it doesn’t feel as though politicians on both sides of the aisle are putting families first, workers first, people first, and are sort of preoccupied with their political standings … It just makes me think that they really are having a hard time understanding how this downturn is impacting working families.
What are the long-term consequences of not responding to these issues, particularly for women of color?
The long-term consequences are very clear: housing insecurity and food insecurity are just two. There’s been a moratorium on evictions, but when that expires and rent comes due, many families are not going to be able to pay. It’s been delayed at this point, but we will probably see a housing crisis in 2021, whether it’s rentals or mortgages.
Many women, women of color, have been unemployed for 28 weeks or more. So the longer women stay out of the workforce the harder it is for them to get a job or return to the workforce. That will definitely have a long-term impact on their long-term economic security and wellbeing, and their earnings.
Especially if you think about women in the service sector. The service sector is one of those industries where experience doesn’t count as much. I know a woman who has been working at the same company in the food industry for 20 years and she lost her job. You can imagine over time, she got incremental raises or wage increases.
But in the food sector and hospitality, you apply for a job and start at the bottom again. It’s not that you can say “Hey at my other food service job I was there for 20 years and when I left I was making $25 an hour.” If the minimum wage or starting wage for a food service job is $15 an hour and there are people scrambling for these jobs because we’ve lost so many, that’s what you will earn.
Since the last recession, there has been a lot of attention towards men who lost out on work and have seen their position shift in the country. Are we going to be talking about angry women in the next five years who are voting because they feel left behind by the country?
Even when the presidential candidates were campaigning and talking about job creation, Joe Biden was in a factory, in a hard hat, talking about how we are going to get people back to work. And I thought “Who is he talking about?” Or even when Donald Trump said “Don’t worry women, we’ll get jobs for your husbands.”
What I am fearful of is that despite the fact that women have been the most impacted – care is one of the chief barriers for women returning to work – we’re going to try to duplicate the recovery package we saw in 2008 to get people back to work and it’s just going to miss the point. Because I do anticipate a really big, robust recovery plan to come down the pipe that is going to focus on job creation and it’s going to be stuff like “We’re going to build roads, solar paneling,” and it’s just, we need infrastructure like care, not infrastructure like roads. That’s fine, but we also need to focus on people who have been most impacted by this economic downturn.
Are there places where you see hope?
There’s a cluster of women’s organizations and thinktanks who have been beating this drum … I’m slightly optimistic and I just think we also need to continue to put pressure on. I know there are a lot of competing priorities for the incoming administration but we only have one big shot in the beginning to make sure that we can get on the road to an equitable, even recovery. And if we leave women out or don’t center them in the discussion, we’re going to be back in six months trying to figure out how to do that.
If Biden called and asked what should we do, would you hand him your Building the Future report?
Yes. I would hand him the report and say these are things that need to happen. These are not just sort of quick fixes. These are structural and institutional changes that need to happen. Some of it is short-term and what we need now.
But this is not going to be the last recession, so we need to be doing the work now to repair those broken systems, to create a vibrant and real social safety net that is not necessarily means-tested but that everyone has access to when there is a need is really, critically important. We are going to need to reimagine some of our social programs, our social safety net, and our infrastructure: health and care.
We need to make sure the next time around, we’re not having to pump trillions of dollars in economic relief because we have a solid infrastructure in place and we just pull those levers.
This interview was edited for length