Women on the Front Lines of the Recession

The COVID-19 crisis has already changed the global economy as we know it. An unprecedented number of businesses have been forced to shut their doors, leaving millions of Americans out of work.

Unemployment claims have hit the highest in recorded history as we head towards an imminent recession. Data from past recessions and the state of the economy pre-COVID-19 shows us that the economic downturn is poised to hit women — especially women of color – first and hardest.  

Through all the hurricanes, floods, I’ve never seen anything like this. On the movies I have, not in real life.
Quintina Moore-Caraway

furloughed airport ramp agent

Women workers are among the most economically vulnerable

Low-paid women workers — and low-paid workers more generally — have very little in the way of savings, which means it is much harder for them to weather economic shocks, especially when they are likely to be supporting a number of dependents. 

Women of color also have much less wealth to fall back on during an economic downturn. In 2007, white women had a median wealth of $45,400 compared to a median wealth of $100 among black women and $120 among Latinx women. 

Overall, women in the United States hold less wealth in the aggregate, but an economic downturn would hit older women particularly hard. According to the Social Security Administration, the median retirement income in 2012 for women ages 65 and older was $16,040 compared with $27,612 for men. Reporting coming out of the Great Recession demonstrates how older workers are hardest hit when markets take a downturn — right before they cash out their assets and are about to retire. 

It is also harder for older workers to find new jobs, especially in an already contracting economy. One study found that the health effect on older workers is more severe during a recession, which is especially daunting given the lack of widespread family and medical leave policies in this country. 


I haven’t worked since March 13. I am not eligible for unemployment because I’m self-employed. I had to call my clients and cancel. What am I supposed to do?
Pam Massey


History has shown us that women — particularly women of color — suffered extensively in previous economic downturns.

Women disproportionately lost jobs relative to men across the economy during the 2008 financial crisis. In the wholesale, retail, and restaurant sectors women lost about 42,000 more jobs than expected based on the share of women in those sectors. 

Following the 2008 recession, women had a particularly difficult time bouncing back compared to men, where men had stronger gains in employment. In fact, women gained only two million out of five in a half million jobs that were recovered in the wake of the recession. 

Black women, who are more likely to hold public sector jobs, struggled when state and local governments cut jobs. Between 2007 and 2011, state and local governments eliminated about 765,000 jobs, of which women and African Americans comprised 70 percent and 20 percent, respectively. However, while public-sector employment rates for black men had returned to pre-recession levels by 2013, black women did not make the same economic recovery

I'm very scared… am I going to be able to stay in this house? Knowing, you know, if I have credit card bills, car payments, all those things add up
Michelle Jarol

laid off fitness instructor

Investing in women workers is key to jumpstarting the economy

Getting our economy back and running won’t be possible without a significant investment in women workers — ensuring that women workers can provide the services that allow the rest of the population to go back to work and purchase goods and services to help the economy recover. 

Women drive the majority of consumer spending and extensive household economic decision making. That means that women’s well-being will play a critical role in kick-starting an economic recovery. Almost 80 percent of women are the primary shoppers for their households and are much more likely to do the grocery shopping and pay household bills compared to men. Women’s purchasing power reaches up to $15 trillion annually. 

Moreover, worker-friendly policies such as paid sick leave are good in the long run — for both workers and employers. Research has found that productivity drops by 20 percent when employees work when they are sick. Providing paid sick days could save employers up to $1.8 billion each year through fewer absences from reduced spread of flu-like illnesses alone.

When workers are doing well, our economy does well. Our economy is deeply interconnected: workers are consumers, consumers are caregivers, and vice versa. Without worker-forward policies in times of crisis, we won’t have the economic resiliency we need to bounce back quickly from a downturn.