Seeing Asian Women to Better Understand the Pandemic ‘She-cession’

By Mina Kim and Diane Lim (with assistance from Taylor D. Jones), August 2020

This pandemic recession has been like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetime. The U.S. has experienced the largest contraction since the Great Depression. Every week, we eagerly await each data release for any sort of good news, only to be met with confirmation after confirmation of the calamitous impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Economists were quick to point out early in the pandemic that increases in unemployment have been more severe for women than men and more severe for people of color than for White people. But in all the analyses, Asian women have been missing. Given the goal of national representativeness in most surveys, the “invisibleness” of Asian women is understandable. We represent a very small percentage of the population. We are also probably not as responsive to surveys given how 1st and 2nd generation Asian American women are taught to blend in and not stand out. (Both of us reflect on how this “blend in” behavior was reinforced in us very early on in our childhoods, by our teachers, classmates, and even our immigrant parents.) As Asian female economists, we had personal incentive to take a good look at the data—we just wanted to find ourselves there! What we found is that not only have Asian women experienced the largest increase in unemployment during the pandemic recession, but that the case of Asian working women probably best shines a spotlight on how women’s employment depends as much or more on what’s going on at home (and the demands for our time there) than on what’s going on with the market demand for our paid work. What follows is a story of what has happened to women in the labor market during this Pandemic Recession and how this recession is different from the last, made clearer by our ability to dive deeper into details across race categories.

NOTE: For this analysis we used the BLS “One-Screen Data Search” tool here. While the monthly employment reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) present breakdowns of the unemployment measure by race and by race-gender categories, they only show data for the Asian category as a whole because of the valid concern that the Asian sub-sample sizes are too small to be statistically comparable with other race-gender categories. But the BLS does publish and make publicly available the data on Asian women separated from Asian men on its website. All data are monthly and unadjusted (not seasonally adjusted), for the populations age 16 and over. The “Asian” category includes only people who identify themselves as (only) Asian on the Census survey, not those who identify as two or more races; it also does not include Pacific Islanders. (A helpful BLS report which explains their categorization of people by race and ethnicity is here.)

  1. The “Pandemic Recession” is a “She-cession” (Figure 1). C. Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, first dubbed the pandemic recession the “She-cession” back in early May in this New York Times story, when it had become apparent that more women than men had become unemployed since February. At the time, the leading explanation was that women make up a disproportionately large share of the workforce in the industries that have been most adversely impacted from the “stay-at-home” orders: the leisure/hospitality sector (think restaurants, bars, sports venues, concert halls, movie theatres), other people-intensive personal services businesses (think beauty salons/barbers, gyms, yoga studios), and non-emergency medical care offices (think general/family practices, dentists, eye doctors).

Now there is recognition of the role childcare (and in-person school), or the lack thereof, plays in affecting the ability of women to work (see Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey and Tertilt; Mongey, Pilossoph, and Weinberg; Dingel, Patterson, and Vavra; Modestino, Ladge and Lincoln; and Heggeness). Compared with a typical economic recession that impacts male employment more than female, the Alon et al. paper stresses that the “She-cession” has more severe short-term/cyclical impact on economic activity due to diminished “within-household insurance”—a reduced ability for parents to trade off/coordinate roles at home vs. work—and will also lead to a longer-term (persistent) widening of the gender wage gap even after the recession is over.

Figure 1.
  1. This recession is very different from the last one (Figure 2). The “Great Recession” (left panel) impacted male-dominated jobs in the economy more than the female-dominated ones. Before the start of that recession, goods-producing jobs (particularly in the durable goods/”heavy” manufacturing sectors) had already begun a longer-term loss due to both offshoring and automation. As the economy began its long, slow recovery from the recession (officially in “recovery” by June 2009), unemployment rates continued to rise, peaking for men in early 2010 at a much higher rate than for women. Overall female unemployment peaked later (in the middle of 2010) but remained below male unemployment until the middle of 2011. Many of the men who had been laid off from their manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession never came back to those jobs after the economy recovered. These were disproportionately middle-aged, White men who came out on the other side of the recession saying “well, I guess I’m retired now.” (These were also the White men disproportionately represented in the “deaths of despair” that Anne Case and Angus Deaton revealed.)

This time (right panel) the economic impact was felt suddenly due to a non-market event and has fallen disproportionately on the employment of women. After several years of very low unemployment where women and men switched ranking but stayed very close to each other, female unemployment very quickly overtook male unemployment at the onset of the pandemic and has retained its “lead” thus far.

  1. Pandemic unemployment has been dominated by the laying off and rehiring of largely part-time workers (Figures 3 and 4). The part-time share of total employed fell as unemployment peaked (in April) and rose as unemployment has declined (since May). The timing is consistent with job losses concentrated in the leisure/hospitality, personal services, and retail sectors, where workers are disproportionately young, part-time, and low-wage (no benefits). (This is also why government assistance has been critical for households to be able to maintain basic consumption and prevent a more severe “reverse multiplier” effect on the economy more broadly.)
Figure 3.

While the trends in unemployment of part-time workers impact women more than men across all race categories, Black and Asian women more often work full-time jobs than do White or Hispanic women.

Figure 4.

If pandemic unemployment were mainly driven by occupational and industry factors (layoffs from part-time jobs in the leisure/hospitality, retail sales, and personal services sectors), we might see Hispanic and White women suffering the greatest unemployment, and Asian and Black women, less so. In fact, it’s not that simple…

  1. The “She-cession” story differs across race (Figures 5 and 6). It appears to have come and gone among Black Americans but has persisted for other race categories. By June, Black male unemployment was back above Black female unemployment, while in all other categories female unemployment has exceeded male unemployment since April. In the prior recession, men overall faced more severe unemployment than women, and it was especially severe for Black men. In this recession, Black men have not had as large an increase in unemployment as many of the women, but only because they started so high. Before the pandemic, in February, the Black male unemployment rate (at 7.3%) was the highest of all the race-gender categories. As of July, the Black male unemployment rate (at 15.6%) was still the highest of all the categories.
Figure 5.
Figure 6.
  1. The “She-cession” experience has had biggest impact on Asian women (Figures 7 and 8). Among all women, Asian women had the lowest unemployment rate in February, yet their unemployment rate has been above average and in line with the unemployment rate of other women of color during the pandemic. In terms of the change in unemployment rates during this pandemic recession so far, Asian women have experienced the single worst change in unemployment through July—not just among women but across all the race-gender categories. (Hispanic women suffered the largest increase in unemployment from February to April; besides figures below, see details in the Appendix Table at the end.)
Figure 7.
Figure 8. (Note: Worst point in the Great Recession is going to differ for each race category. See the Appendix Table for the exact dates.)

Caveats, Take-Aways, and “To Be Continued”s:

  • We’ve provided a one-step-more-granular analysis here, simply by including Asian females in our look at employment outcomes by race and gender. But this still doesn’t include everyone! “Asian” doesn’t include those who identify as only part-Asian (of multiple races), nor the “Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders” who also tend to get left out of the “Asian” category in analyses by race—due to even smaller sample sizes than that of Asian females.
  • Yet, this race-gender intersectional analysis is still meaningful in that we do see clear differences in employment outcomes across both race and gender and all the race-gender categories. The analysis “works” because as broad as these race-gender categories are, and as heterogenous as the characteristics of the populations within each category, there are still enough characteristics that are common (or prevalent) within each category yet distinct enough from those in other categories. We suspect, for example, that the “Asian Female” category contains a sizable group of women who have relatively low educational attainment and work relatively low-skilled and low-paid personal services jobs (think nail salon), which would partially offset whatever we see that is driven by the high-skilled, higher-paid Asian women working in professional service jobs. Yet the average characteristics and outcomes within the Asian Female category still put the group as a whole in higher-skilled occupations and higher-paid jobs compared with women in the other race categories.
  • And those distinct characteristics and outcomes are not merely random differences. Race is a social construct, and that’s why it is useful in studying social and economic behaviors, influenced by social and cultural norms. Asian women look “special” in this analysis of unemployment during the Pandemic Recession because their roles in the labor market and at home and the resulting tradeoffs they face in making decisions about work vs. home are likely different enough from other women. For example, Asian women are less likely to experience the gender wage gap, probably because of their high educational attainment and occupational choices—and that’s a plus for holding onto jobs during this pandemic. (Distinct from other women, Asian women are more likely to work high-paid professional service jobs than low-paid leisure/hospitality or retail jobs.) But Asian women are also more likely to be in a traditional family structure, married with children, and married to a man who has even higher market-earning power. (We hope to do a follow-on piece on the family structure and marriage/”assortative mating” factors later.) So, as highly productive as an Asian woman might be in her job, she is likely to be the household’s “secondary earner” and also the household’s “primary caregiver.” This is why a deeper study of what’s going on with Asian women in this pandemic recession would shine a light on the struggles of all working mothers, who all face demands on their time at home with the kids. Those demands (regardless of the financial opportunity costs) too easily tip the scales in favor of staying at home and cutting back on or quitting their paid work.
  • For Asian women, the cultural factors influencing our labor market decisions are perhaps stronger than for other women. (See this paper on “Babies, Work, or Both?” by Mary Brinton and Eunsil Oh.) Many working-age Asian women are immigrants or children of immigrants. Diane’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea (dad) and the Philippines (mom, of Chinese ethnicity) in the 1950s, both to pursue PhDs in Chemistry. Diane’s mom finished her PhD in 1962, just months after Diane was born, and spent nearly a decade staying at home with Diane and her younger sister Janice and was never able to make up for that lost first decade of her career. Mina’s parents immigrated from Korea in the 1970s to pursue a PhD in Physics (dad) and a Masters in Nursing (mom). Mina’s mom put her career on hold to take care of her and her two sisters when family could not help. Yet both moms constantly coached their daughters to “do it all”: to both stay ever-active in the workforce and take primary responsibility for the proper care of the kids on the home front.
  • This “first look” at Asian women’s employment outcomes has underscored the importance of considering how social and cultural expectations about the roles of women at home vs. at work influence female employment outcomes, especially in this pandemic with kids learning from home and daycare and elder care facilities closed or downsized (or viewed as undesirable/unsafe by families). It also suggests that the increased demands placed on women’s time on the home front does not just force women who earn relatively low wages (below the cost of child care) to give up their paid job, but is likely causing many higher-earning women (who can afford to pay for child care even as it has become scarcer) to cut back on or even drop out of the labor force, even when the financial and economic opportunity cost of doing so is high.
  • Further investigation is needed, going still more granular and down to more household-level data, to better understand what truly drives women’s choices and outcomes concerning work. These are questions fundamental to the study of Economics and requires research methods that have largely remained outside the Economics profession. Further research should: (i) start with interviews and focus groups; (ii) use these findings to develop surveys; and (iii) field the surveys to intentionally oversample the population subgroups that best represent and emphasize the decisions we are trying to better understand.

Appendix Table: detailed unemployment rates and changes, comparing previous to current recession

Thoughts on Coronavirus Economic Policy, Thinking as “Economist Mom”

L to R: Johnny, Diane (Mom, holding Taco), Grace, Allie, Becca, Bill (holding Tammy), Emily, and Danny

I know I haven’t been here very often since I “rebirthed” my Economist Mom blog!  But every glass half empty is also half full.  The coronavirus crisis and its required “social distancing” have provided me both the calling and the opportunity to think about the possible economic policy responses, not just relying on the same old economist’s toolkit but with the benefit of wisdom from my own children—who are experiencing this crisis much more than I.  I have come to the conclusion that the fastest, most helpful policy the federal government could implement would be to immediately put in place a tax deduction for donations to service-sector small businesses adversely impacted by the coronavirus shutdowns, which tax filers could claim off their 2019 returns that they are filing now.  How I got there is explained below—in my Economist Mom kind of way.

My husband Bill and I are really lucky.  We work as economists—policy “experts” they call us—in salaried positions where we can easily work from home or take paid sick leave.  The coronavirus pandemic affects us only in truly superficial ways that I am ashamed to even bring up: I am bummed that our planned trips to see family were cancelled and that we can’t otherwise spend our leisure time going out around town, and Bill is pretty lost without March Madness.  Today we took advantage of having few of our usual weekend pastimes to work on our 2019 tax return—a full month ahead of the April 15 “Tax Day” deadline.

Our own children: not so lucky.  We have six adult children between us.  Danny (Bill’s son) works for Amazon in Seattle.  A co-worker who works in an office near his has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and Danny has been on mandatory work from home (WFH).  Becca (Bill’s daughter) works at Cedars Sinai in LA where several coronavirus patients are being treated.  Allie (my eldest daughter) works for Coursera in Mountain View, CA –another “hotspot” for coronavirus cases; she and her boyfriend, who together share an apartment with another roommate, are all on mandatory WFH in a really-too-small apartment to serve as an office for three.  Emily (my second daughter) and Grace (my youngest daughter) both live in Brooklyn, NY.  Emily is a Ph.D. student at NYU, adjunct teaching this semester at her undergrad alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, NY.  (Look that up in a map, and you’ll understand why we stayed in a hotel in New Rochelle when we attended Emily’s college graduation—and you’ll understand why Emily started teaching online last week and why she’s at high risk for being exposed.)  Grace is a 2019 graduate from NYU and works part time at the service counter and as wait staff of a high-end bakery in Brooklyn on a combination of low hourly wage and tips.  Her other part-time job is with a consultant who plans and stages events.  (They have no events planned now.)  She commutes to the bakery by subway and is face to face with customers all day long.  Her bakery is complying with the 50% capacity restriction by having removed half the tables in the café, but otherwise business is booming; on Saturday the customers lined up to buy out all the bread they had made that morning –so Grace had plenty of contact with many, many customers.  She tweeted out this morning that she cried while she was at work yesterday, so scared about how difficult it is for her to stay safe from this pandemic.  And that broke my heart.  Even my youngest, my son Johnny, a junior attending William and Mary, has not come out unscathed despite having gone straight from an indoor track championship last weekend in Boston to a spring break beach week in Charleston, SC with his track buddies.  While on break, he and his teammates learned their entire spring season was cancelled—which broke all their hearts.  (The ruling of the NCAA that spring season athletes will be granted another year of eligibility provides some compensation and consolation, but now we can expect to see a lot of track athletes with master’s degrees!)

I tell you about all the hardships on our children to provide context for the reason I write this post: their situations have made me see that the debilitating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy require a very different kind of economic policy response from anything (“boomer”?) policy “experts” have thought about and worked on before.  The whole reason for the economic shutdown is because we’re trying to prevent the spread of the health problem.  If we could easily tell when someone was sick with or carrying the virus (i.e., if we had universally available and quick/instant testing), then we wouldn’t have to tell everyone to stay home.  But the invisible, stealthy nature of this virus and how fast it spreads requires that we all stay at home and practice safe “social distancing.”  This is not a problem for me and Bill who can work in social isolation all the time (as many economists like to do, but not me).  It is a much bigger hardship for our children—especially Grace who only gets paid when she shows up for work, relies more on tips than her hourly wage, and who works in an intensely face-to-face, hand-to-hand job.

Congress and the Administration are trying to come up with an economic policy response to the coronavirus crisis by dusting off policies from past economic crises.  (OK, Boomer…)  But those policies such as payroll tax cuts or enhanced unemployment benefits are not going to help hourly-wage workers like Grace who will either continue working as usual, worried about being or getting sick, or will work fewer (or no) hours and earn lower (or no) wages and tips.  What we really need is for workers like Grace to be paid their usual wage to stay at home.  But this is a totally radical concept for economists who overly obsess about price incentives in normal times: what, pay people to not work?  These are not normal times or a “normal” economic crisis.

DC’s most beloved restauranteur and chef, Jose Andres, just announced today that he is closing all his restaurants to reduce the risk of spreading the virus among staff and customers, and that he is increasing production of to-go meals in his community kitchens (many of which will operate inside his restaurant kitchens, keeping his healthy staff working).  The DC community is fortunate to have such a successful business owner be also such a generous man.  But other food service businesses cannot afford to keep their workers working and earning as usual when people aren’t coming out or the business is required to cut the number of customers they serve.  At the same time, people like me and Bill who are lucky enough to keep our usual paychecks and who would normally go out to eat and drink still have the discretionary income, and the desire, to support our favorite food and drink establishments—even if it means helping them make payroll and rent while they are forced to shut down.

Now, anyone could choose to help out their favorite local bar, restaurant, or bakery, by donating to that establishment’s Go Fund Me page if they were to set one up to help continue to pay their hourly workers even as their business is shuttered or reduced.  (I do recommend that small service-industry businesses do that; your usual patrons will support you!)  I’m here to help out my daughter Grace if she is forced to or wants to stop working at the bakery, and certainly if Bill and I were to benefit from some new tax cut we don’t need, we would most likely immediately hand it over to Grace and our other kids.  And while Congress may be trying to come up with legislation that better gets at the fundamental problem of steering dollars to the workers who will have to stay home because food and entertainment establishments and schools are shut down, let’s face it, nothing that government can do will happen soon enough to get people to stay home soon enough (as in right away) and stop spreading the virus. 

So that brings me back to Bill and I working on our 2019 tax return today.  Why not allow people to make individual financial donations to small service-providing businesses that have to shut down operations, and why not let government subsidize this by making such donations tax deductible?  (Current law allows deductions only for donations to charitable or nonprofit organizations, not any for-profit businesses.)  And why not take advantage of being in tax filing season by letting people immediately write off coronavirus donations (made now, in March 2020) from their 2019 taxes?  This is a way a government policy could have immediate impact.  No figuring out how to cut checks or send debit cards!  No need to send those checks to everyone (including people like me and Bill, who don’t need it).

If service-providing businesses reduce or shut down their human-facing operations, it provides a public good (reduced spread of the coronavirus) but at private cost (lost revenue).  Internalizing this positive externality requires that the good-for-society behavior (shutting down face-to-face, hand-to-hand services) be subsidized.  That subsidy can come from private individuals who care about the social good, but ideally comes from government as well.  Doing policy through the tax system can be handy when it sets up a public-private partnership of sorts: private citizens choose to make charitable contributions to the organizations they wish to help, and government matches the donation at a fraction equal to their marginal tax rates.  (Doesn’t have to be limited to the itemized deduction mechanism though—in fact, this is a perfect occasion to bring in the “above the line deduction.”)  And I just said all that as an economist, but it’s the mom in me (and the dad in Bill) that really motivates this policy idea.  We need to quickly get relief to businesses like the bakery Grace works for.  It’s critical to addressing not just the economic fallout from coronavirus but the underlying root of this crisis: the uncontrolled, invisible, and rapid spread of the virus.