By Abby Vesoulis

The United States is in the midst of a crushing economic recession, COVID-19 infection rates are spiking, and thousands of schools and childcare facilities have yet to reopen in-person classrooms. The group bearing the brunt of this torrent of bad news? Women.

Between August and September, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics September jobs report. In the same time period, just 216,000 men exited the workforce. Meanwhile, one in four women are considering reducing work hours, moving to part-time roles, switching to less demanding jobs, taking leaves of absence from work, or stepping away from the workforce altogether, according to an annual Women in the Workplace study published in September by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In.

“If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” says Rachel Thomas, the CEO of Lean In, a gender equity advocacy group co-founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. “We have never seen numbers like these.”

In the absence of analogy, it’s far too early to tell what the impact of this unequal exodus will be, since we’re still in the midst of it. But economic and business sector analysts agree it’s not going to be good: The progress towards gender pay equity, still incomplete, will certainly stall if not fall backwards. The number of women who earn C-suite roles may also decrease, hurting the women who miss out on them—while also marring the companies they work for. Research shows companies with heterogeneity tend to have better balance sheets than their competitors. All of these compounding factors serve to quash economic recovery for everyone.

“There’s no historic parallel for what’s happening here for women,” says Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We have nothing to compare it to: not to the 2008 recession or the Great Depression.”

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