More women than men are filing for unemployment in South Carolina as COVID-19 causes equality backslide

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In this photo illustration, a person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW) — Women’s status in the economy had been improving. And then the pandemic hit.

“Worst case assessments show that most of those advancements have been eradicated by COVID,” said Ina Seethaler, an assistant professor and the director of women’s and gender studies at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.

Making up 51.36% of South Carolina’s population, and with a labor force population rate that was once 56.7%, women have disproportionately been affected by the pandemic’s impact on the economy. 

From March through December, of the 56,103 unemployment claims filed in South Carolina, 55.21% were by women, according to information from the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce.

In March, 57.05% of the claims were filed by woman. That dipped slightly to 56.7% in April.

A total of 30,975 women filed unemployment claims from March through December.

Those numbers do not include women who have left the workforce or have switched to part-time work.

Seethaler said men in heterosexual relationships have taken on more household duties since the pandemic began, but that the change has not been enough to prevent women from having to drop out of the workforce.

“The situation before COVID was so dire, and women are still really carrying such a huge amount of the caretaking — and also emotional labor for the whole family — that even with, granted, the very positive effect that male partners are helping a little bit more, that the effect has not been enough,” she said. 

Failing grades

South Carolina ranks as 41 in the nation, with a D grade, for women’s employment and earnings, according to Status of Women in the States. It ranks 35 for poverty and opportunity, with a D+ grade.

In 2016, women earned an average of $34,000 a year, while men earned $45,000, according to the rankings. White women earned $38,027, Hispanic women made $26,942 and Black women earned $28,478.

Labor force participation was 56.7% for women, compared to 65.1% for men. While 28.1% of women worked part time, 16% of men did. Women were also more likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, with 28.1% South Carolina women having one, compared to 26.8% of men.

Rose Jackson, who founded South Carolina Women in Business in the early 2000s, said there’s no longer a big focus on women in business.

“I feel a lot of those organizations are pulling back from that, even before this COVID situation,” she said. 

The organization, which was created to connect women in different parts of the state so they can do business with each other, posts information on its website to help female entrepreneurs. 

Seethaler said women are traditionally pushed into what are considered “pink collar” jobs, which include careers in caretaking, nursing, public health and education. Those jobs, she said, tend to not be regarded highly because of the impression that they don’t take special training.

“What we are seeing is these jobs are usually not paying well,” Seethaler said. 

She said she is seeing that women in heterosexual relationships are leaving full-time jobs for part-time employment, or have completely left the workforce due to the pandemic in order to fulfill household duties. 

Women make up the majority of workers in nursing and teaching, a job that’s seen a public perception whiplash during the pandemic as it has slid from its initial “unsung hero” status.

“It is really ironic, sad, to see that people that are in these dangerous spaces and these underappreciated places, that women play a huge role there, and I’m not sure that COVID is going to change our perception of this,” Seethaler said. “Teachers bounced back fairly quickly to, ‘They aren’t doing much work and they are lazy.’”

“Pink collar”

Women in “pink collar” jobs typically don’t see many advancement opportunities and tend to earn lower wages than those in other fields.

“The idea is that women don’t just take care of people, but that they live to serve people,” Seethaler said. “A number of folks who work in the service industry are female-identified folks.”

Before COVID-19 hit, women were seeing advancements in getting into higher leadership positions, along with pursuing more careers in science, technology, engineering and math. However, women of color were not experiencing gains at the same speed and level as their white counterparts.

Seethaler said persistent stereotypes assign effective leadership skills to masculine attributes like aggressiveness, having a large physical presence or having a big voice. She said studies have also shown that women get heavily criticized for talking and that young girls are discouraged from pursuing leadership positions after being called “bossy.”

There’s also the “motherhood penalty,” which is perpetuated against women by all genders.

“Those kinds of stereotypes about women becoming mothers really holds employers back from seeing the potential in a person and in a future employee, which is why women on average tend to get a lower starting salary than men,” Seethaler said. 

She said employers see the ideal worker as a man with a wife at home, who doesn’t have to care about making dinner, taking care of children or leaving work. Women, meanwhile, are seen as having less flexible work hours.

The psychological impact of navigating those situations is pushing a significant amount of women into part-time jobs, which impacts their earning potential, benefits and how much they can save for retirement, Seethaler said. 

One of the pandemic’s lasting effects may be that working from home will be accepted more widely, making situations potentially easier for women who want to work remotely.

“We’ll see if that is going to be a lasting change, but, unfortunately, that will only be helpful for certain groups within the workforce, and probably won’t actually tackle the biggest groups in which women make up the majority of workers,” Seethaler said.

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