Women were hit hardest when the Covid-19 pandemic started taking its terrible toll on the job market. Last month there were promising gains for women in the workforce but it’s still too early to declare the end of the “shecession”.

The pandemic’s arrival hit the women-dominated leisure, hospitality and retail industries first and hardest as the nation went into lockdown. As job losses hit record highs the US recorded another sorry first – the first recession in which women lost the most jobs.

Now as vaccination rates soar and states continue to reopen, hiring is rebounding. In March, 495,000 women entered the labor force, by either looking for work or getting work that month. In February, only 26,000 women had entered the labor force.

But these promising top-line figures betray the harsher economic situation for Black women, as well as the specific hurdles women face in getting back to the work, including lack of childcare.

Many women have simply dropped out of the labor force altogether. Women’s labor force participation – the percentage of women in or looking for work – had not been as low as it was in March (57.4%) since December 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).

“One of the things we’re worried about is that because 1.8 million women have left the workforce entirely, that means if and when they do return, they are likely to have lower wages than they would have if they never left,” Emily Martin, vice-president of education and workplace justice at the NWLC, told the Guardian.

Black women in particular are experiencing higher levels of unemployment and are overrepresented among those who have left the workforce entirely.

Black women’s unemployment rate was 8.7% in March, compared with 5.3% in March 2020. For women overall, the unemployment rate in March was 5.7%.

“When you do get a job again after that long spell out of work it’s likely to show up in lower wages for potentially years to come,” Martin said. “We’re concerned that we’ll see this in race and gender wage gaps.”

Women are also losing out as retail, hospitality and leisure start to regain jobs.

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