Although the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past year have caused dismissals, unpaid leave and stress among both genders around the world, women have especially borne the brunt of the crisis. This has certainly occurred in Israel – with its relatively high birth rate compared to other Western countries.
Although women make up just under 50% of employees in Israel, they accounted for 56% of unemployment claims during the early days of the pandemic, between March 1and May 10, 2020. Though many of these women returned to the labor market after the first lockdown, the second and third lockdowns forced many of them to be without jobs, permanently or temporarily. This, according to a new bulletin from the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel – an independent, non-political think tank in Jerusalem – is likely to harm the progress made in women’s employment rates and wages in Israel prior to the pandemic.
On the eve of the coronavirus crisis, Israeli women worked at higher rates than women in the OECD, on average, while also having higher fertility rates than their OECD counterparts. The average employment rate among Israeli women has risen by 20 percentage points over the last 30 years and stands at 75%, higher than the OECD average of 66%, and employment among women is growing faster in Israel than in the OECD. In addition, the hourly gender wage gap had declined slightly in Israel, from 17.3% in 2008 to 15.8% in 2017.
But as was seen in many countries when the coronavirus hit, the pandemic is threatening the advances that women have made in the Israeli labor market over the past few decades. As stated above, more women than men were laid off or put on unpaid leave during the first lockdown and, even more concerningly, the share of women out of the unemployed and those put on unpaid leave increased slightly in the second and third lockdown as compared to the first.
One reason for the disproportionate impact on women is that the industries primarily hurt by the pandemic – including tourism and retail – are industries with a majority of female employees. However, evidence from the first lockdown indicates that, even within a given industry, women were hit harder than men. In 18 of Israel’s 19 industries, the share of women from those filing unemployment claims was higher than their share of positions in the industry.
For example, in the health field, 83% of unemployment claims were filed by women, while their employment share in the industry is 76%. In the information and communications industry, 54% of claims were filed by women, while their employment share in the industry is only 41%.
Women may have been at higher risk of losing their jobs during the crisis than men in the same industry because they tend to work fewer hours than men, hold part-time positions more often, be employed in less senior positions, earn less and have more difficulty getting tenure due to their going on maternity leave for several months or more.
In addition, with children out of school for much of the time because of the pandemic, parents had to take on more childcare responsibilities than during normal times. Among households with two working parents before the pandemic, women averaged 23 weekly work hours while men worked 36 hours. Because women in Israel already tended to work fewer hours, earn lower salaries and do more of the home and childcare work prior to the crisis, many families may have chosen to sacrifice the woman’s employment to take care of children during this unprecedented time.
Even among those still working, the crisis has been very stressful. A survey conducted by the Taub Center during the second lockdown as part of its Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality found that 60% of mothers who participated reported feeling exhausted; about half said they were stressed; and about a fifth experienced sadness or despair on a daily or almost daily basis in the week leading up to the survey.
Many respondents also reported trouble sleeping and loss of appetite. One in four women said they had no help during lockdowns (not even from their partner) in caring for their youngest child over the age of one, and 40% of women reported a rise in worry about money and unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic.
The current challenges could also have long-term implications. Leaving the labor market because of the crisis could affect women’s future salaries because, after a recession, it often takes years for the unemployed to reach their wage level prior to the crisis. Such losses in wages have a broader effect as they are ultimately reflected in the pension savings women will have for retirement.
Even with Israel’s successful vaccination campaign, women’s employment will likely still be affected for some time to come, in part because as long as children are not vaccinated, the chances of children going to school without gaps are low because children are at higher risk of being infected with the virus and having to be in isolation at home.
Nonetheless, wrote the Taub Center researchers, there could be some silver linings of opportunities because the COVID-19 crisis has presented some opportunities that could help working women in the future. For example, there are some indications that male partners have taken on a greater role in childcare during this pandemic, and in some cases, even they became primary childcare suppliers. In addition, the crisis has allowed for much more work from home – a trend likely to continue after the crisis.
While the current situation makes finding a work-life balance difficult for many, the researchers concluded, the ability to work from home after the crisis could help both women and men reach a better work-life balance moving forward.