The shutdown of Israel’s economy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in higher rates of unemployment among women than men, a development that could erase the inroads women have made in the workplace, a report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel shows.
According to figures compiled in the report, although women make up just under 50 percent of employees, they accounted for 56% of unemployment claims during the pandemic, since March 1. This is the case across all age groups.
“The study shows us just how much women in Israel have been really bearing a lot of the brunt of the job losses, the economic impact,” Liora Bowers, the author of the report, told The Times of Israel by phone. “This is a big concern,” she said, because the developments are likely to undo the progress women have made in Israel over the decades on entering the workforce and narrowing the wage gap.
“Given the higher rate of job losses among women since the start of the coronavirus crisis, there is a real risk to the employment and wage gains made by Israeli women in the past decades,” Bowers wrote in the report, adding that it is not clear how many of the women who lost their jobs will reenter the workforce.
This gender disparity is mainly seen in the Jewish sector — with Haredi women experiencing particularly high job losses, and the Haredi sector in general being hit the hardest, both men and women, Bowers said.
In addition, in 18 out of 19 industries studied, women have lost jobs disproportionately to their share of positions in that industry. So, for example, while women account for 76% of the healthcare workforce, they accounted for 86% of people who lost their jobs in this sector.
Previous recessions have shown that job losses during a downturn can cause a long-term reduction in future earnings, Bowers wrote, and the impact on employment rates and wage gaps is likely to lead to increased disparities in pension savings of men and women, further widening income disparities between the genders.
This disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women could be explained by the fact that the most vulnerable workers have been hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis: the average wage of those receiving unemployment benefits since March is NIS 6,955 compared to a NIS 10,345 average wage in the market, according to National Insurance Institute data.
“As such, it may be that women’s more precarious position in the workforce — fewer work hours per week, more temporary positions, lower rank, lower salaries, and tenure interruptions due to maternity leave — is leading them to be the first to be selected for layoffs and unpaid leave,” Bowers wrote.
Another factor could be that because schools and daycare centers for children were shut down to curb the spread of the virus, women, who are more often the lower wage earners in a household, are the ones more likely to be selected to give up work in order to care for the children, she wrote.
About 46%, or just under 400,000, of individuals ages 20-67 filing for unemployment had a child under age 18 at home; 18% of these had a child under age two, the report said.
The Haredi sector has been the hardest hit because of a combination of factors, Bowers said, including the fact that many are employed in lower earning jobs and have a large number of children.
Women being the hardest hit by coronavirus unemployment seems to be a global phenomenon, with studies by the Pew Research Center and The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggesting that more women in the US will have lost jobs because the industries they tend to work in have been harder hit, Bowers said.
This seems not to be the case in Israel, Bowers added, as data shows that the unemployment rates of women are higher than their share of positions in almost all of the 19 industries surveyed, from arts and entertainment to financial services and health. It is more likely that the phenomenon in Israel is driven by the higher number of children in Israeli families and by the fact that women tend to be the secondary wage earners. Among working parents in Israel, women average 23 weekly work hours while men work 36 hours.
Women making strides
Over the past decades, Israeli women have made major strides in the labor market, Bowers wrote.
The average employment rate among Israeli women is 75% , and among non-Haredi Jewish women it is 84%, a rise of 20 percentage points over the last 30 years.
This is higher than the OECD average, which stands at 66%, and is growing at a faster rate than the OECD’s, the report said, based on a 2019 study.
Israel also stands out in another way: it has the highest birth rate in the developed world, at 3.1 children per woman — and employment rates among mothers of young children are high, according to a 2016 study cited in the Taub report.
Arab and Haredi women have also seen some of the greatest increases in employment, indicating that the labor market has been including economically weaker populations.
“The coronavirus crisis in Israel now threatens these labor market gains across population groups in Israel,” wrote Bowers in the Taub report.
Earlier this month an OECD report forecast that Israel’s economy would contract in 2020 by some 6.2%, or by 8.3% if there is a second wave, compared to last year.
The lockdowns and social distancing steps put in place in Israel in response to the pandemic, have resulted in a surge in unemployment rates, which reached 27.8% by May 10, 2020. This figure is now on its way down as the market reopens.
Furthermore, the closure of schools and daycare centers for two months, between mid-March and mid-May, and ad hoc closures of schools since then, have brought on challenges “that are unique to this crisis,” Bowers wrote.
“A critical goal for policymakers must thus be to ensure that as many workers as possible experience only temporary joblessness rather than persistent disengagement from the labor market, which could erode labor force participation and wages in the long-run,” Bowers wrote.
Policies such as providing grants for businesses to employ workers must be examined through a “gender lens,” as well, she said. “Policymakers need to consider whether it’s going to benefit more men or women, or is it neutral.”
A ray of light
Though the picture looks gloomy, said Bowers, there could be an upside.
“We must look at this period and see how we can use this experience of the last two months to actually address these changes and see a movement in the other way, and working from home is a huge part of that,” Bowers said in the interview.
Indeed, as companies scrambled to cope with the lockdowns, many turned to working from home to keep the economy chugging. This, said Bowers, is a factor that may benefit women in the long run.
“As companies implement tools, technologies and organizational practices that facilitate telework, they are creating a norm around work schedules and locations that helps integrate family and work,” she wrote.
This could lead to more women being able to potentially apply for higher wage jobs, which would allow them to work from home and better juggle career and childcare.
“Such flexibility will be particularly advantageous to women. This may lead to a reduction in the wage gap, particularly if it draws more women into higher pay industries such as high tech and finance,” Bowers wrote.
Another factor that may have a long-term positive effect on gender equality is the fact that during the pandemic, men, who also worked from home, were more exposed to their share of the day-to-day childcare responsibilities.
“If men continue their greater involvement in, or in some cases primary responsibility for, childcare that arose from this crisis, this, too, will have an impact on promoting more equality in gender roles, and a more balanced work life for men also,” she wrote.