Photo banner with pictures of women and girls and title: Living, Learning, and Earning: Women's Equity in Education and Employment

In honor of Women’s History Month, SEF is launching a series highlighting education and workforce equity issues that affect women and girls in the United States, especially the most vulnerable – women of color and those with the lowest levels of education – each of whom is over-represented in low-wage jobs.

By Meagan Crowe and Titilayo Tinubu Ali  // March 17, 2021

March 2021 marks one full year since the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread shutdowns and soaring U.S. unemployment that disparately impacted women, especially women of color, single mothers and those with less education than a bachelor’s degree. In the last 12 months, women suffered more job losses, took on more child- and family-care responsibilities, bore the brunt of additional housework, left the labor force in higher numbers, and reported burnout at rates significantly higher on average than men.

The last year brought into sharp focus the reality that gender and racial parity have a long way to go. Without significant investment to right the wrongs of the past and regain ground lost in the pandemic, it could take years for women to recover their economic and social footing. By January 2021, 2.3 million fewer women were in the labor force than at the start of the pandemic. According to the National Women’s Law Center, by February 2021, women’s labor force participation rate was the lowest it’s been since 1988.

Pandemic-related setbacks have been significantly worse for women of color, exacerbating inequities that plagued them long before March 2020. For example, women of color are traditionally over-represented in the entry-level, low-wage service and hospitality industry jobs, which were decimated by pandemic-shutdowns and are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels. According to the New York Times, Black women’s labor force participation rate is still almost 10 percent lower than before the pandemic, compared with eight percent lower for Latina women, but just over five percent lower for white women.

Women of color are less likely than white women to be promoted at work, to receive high quality healthcare and to receive financial support in state recovery efforts – systemic inequities based in part on their gender, but also dependent on their race. For working mothers of color, the intersection of gender- and race-based systemic inequality, now combined with disparate negative pandemic-related economic impacts mean more children will be growing up without the resources they need to reach their full potential and live the opportunity-rich life they deserve.

To help state and education leaders understand the scope of issues, target efforts and resources to those who need them most, and advance gender and racial equity in education and the workforce, starting this month, SEF will publish several pieces touching on the following topics:

  • the historical factors that hold all women back, but also the unique set of experiences that affect women of color who sit at the intersection between gender and race and therefore are often completely overlooked in conversations regarding gender parity and racial equality;
  • how challenges to building the teacher workforce are components of each of these;
  • why inadequacies in childcare and early child education exacerbate race and gender inequities and are workforce problems;
  • how states can help women of all ages, in particular women of color and women with low education levels, to regain the footing they lost during the pandemic

Each post will include policy considerations and examples to help states address gender and racial equity. Conversations on equity in education must include gender parity. After all, “women’s history” is the history of us all. 

Meagan Crowe is SEF’s Senior Research and Policy Analyst, and Titilayo Tinubu Ali is SEF’s Senior Director of Research and Policy.

Read the other blogs in this series: Women’s Equal Pay Day and Childcare in the U.S.