Why the crisis could prompt more women to join the labor market

May 21, 2020

Sections Economics Video

Collections COVID-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to work virtually, and that may have long-lasting effects. Chicago Booth’s Veronica Guerrieri believes it may improve employment flexibility and provide more options for women who may currently be penalized for shouldering family responsibilities.

Video Transcript

Clearly, a recession is going to come, and it’s going to be bad. The question is how the recovery is going to be and what’s going to happen in the long run.

One issue that is important that has been emphasized in the recent debate is inequality. The short-term effects are amplifying the inequality that is already a big issue in the United States. The reason being that those sectors that are shut down, where work cannot be done virtually, are mostly sectors where the workers are low-income, are in low-income families. And this has been proving particularly stressful for those families. So, inequality is one important issue that is here in the short term, and the question is: Is it going to be solved in the long run, or is the amplifying effect still going to be there? And, of course, in thinking about that, the transformation of the economy is going to matter.

That brings me to my second point, which is how the economy is going to transform in the long run. And in the long run, what I believe is the more important effect of the current crisis is the fact that we have been learning a lot about doing things virtually, both production and education, social dynamics, and support.

So this is an important innovation, and it’s going to have an impact on the way in which production is going to happen, even when the epidemic is over, and possibly on education as well. I think this transformation, in terms of progress on the virtual dimension, is going to be particularly important for women and for women’s participation in the labor force. And this is going to be true for two reasons. 

First, because many jobs require traveling, and women with little kids at home may find it harder to keep up with traveling than their male colleagues do. So the possibility of working remotely may help those women to access a larger range of jobs than before because of home constraints. They will also be able to advance in their careers much more than before.

The second reason is that with virtual working, hours are much more flexible. So women may decide to work at night or may decide to work in moments in which their kids don’t require as much attention. So I think that potentially, if used in the right way, this advance of virtual working may be particularly important for increasing the participation of women and improving the productivity of the overall economy, because valuable women will now be able to do what they couldn’t before because of constraints coming from their home and schooling and helping their kids.

This also emphasizes another thing that I think is going to be more visible from now on than before, which is how important the educational system, and the hours of the educational system, are. So we have seen now that the shutdown of schooling is having a tremendous impact on those couples who both are working, and there’s a lack of availability of nannies and other sources of help. This, I think, is going to be in the minds of policy makers in thinking about the designing of the school system, and it’s hopefully going to be done in a way that’s going to be even more helpful for the women who work in the future.

I think this is going to emphasize the importance of schooling even before kindergarten—pre-schooling, nursery schools, and so forth, and the access to those types of school for a lower-income family, for example.

And this is also going to be important for the design of hours, the flexibility in the hours of the schools even at the higher level, like primary and secondary schools. And hopefully there are going to be more-flexible programs that can help working families.