When you hear that women only make 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, that’s a figure that comes with a lot of asterisks. Not “here’s how it’s not as bad as it sounds” asterisks, either. Racial inequality is one big factor, of course, but the coronavirus pandemic is illustrating another big force preserving and promoting gender inequality: When there’s care work to be done, it’s overwhelmingly women who give up their paid work to do it.
Leaving the paid workforce to take care of children or aging parents makes women economically vulnerable as it’s happening, but that’s not all, as a New York Times report reminds us. Losing months or years of income also means losing retirement security, and women live longer than men and face higher healthcare costs in retirement.
COVID-19 has been forcing women out of the workforce in huge numbers, and woman after woman tells the same story. Their husbands make more money than they do—that 82 cents rearing its head—so it just makes sense for them to quit and care for kids now at home much of the time, many of whom need help with their remote learning.
This is why for many woman, 82 cents on the dollar is an ambitious goal—because they give up years of earnings for unpaid care work. For those workers who have workplace retirement plans, men have an average of $131,000 and women average only $88,000. Women also lose Social Security benefits thanks to time away from paid work. So the women leaving the paid workforce now, though they are mostly working extremely hard at home, will face economic fallout for the rest of their lives.
President-elect Joe Biden does have a plan to help the situation somewhat, mainly by giving Social Security work credit for unpaid care work. That’s an important plan, and one Congress should pass as part of COVID-19 relief. But it’s not enough. We need to get to a society where women are paid equally, so that whole “he makes more so it makes sense for me to quit” argument dies. We need affordable child care. We need our culture to value women’s work. Once again, the coronavirus is both exposing and exacerbating existing inequalities and making already vulnerable people more vulnerable.