ST. PAUL — Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout, working women in Minnesota are still bearing a disproportionate burden, having not recovered employment levels equal to males.

On Tuesday, March 2, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove held a roundtable discussion with female business leaders and community advocates from across the state to discuss the barriers women are facing, and what the state can do to help.

For months now, female workers in Minnesota and across the country have borne a heavier economic weight than men for a number of reasons, including a disproportionate number of layoffs in predominantly female industries like hospitality and service, and a lack of family care options, to name two. For women of color, the burden is even heavier.

Alene Tchourumoff, who is senior vice president for community development and engagement for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, said that in April 2020, when the nation saw peak unemployment, approximately 16.1% of women were unemployed, compared to 13.6% of men. By comparison, during the 2009 recession, men’s unemployment peaked at 11% and women’s at 8.7%.

But Tchourumoff added the caveat: “Really, looking at the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story. We actually really do need to look at labor force participation, as well.”

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She said women’s labor force participation is down approximately 2.1 percentage points from February 2020 to January 2021, compared to 1.7 percentage points for men. And for mothers, the drops are more dramatic, and sustained. Labor force participation for mothers of children aged 0 to 17 years-old remain 3.4 percentage points below the pre-pandemic baseline.

Mary Kay Ziniewicz, who founded the platform Bus Stop Mamas, said the issue dates back further than the pandemic. For years, fertility rates have been on the decline, and Ziniewicz said working women are fed the narrative that “having children makes us less-than.”

“Our fertility rate is the lowest it's been. There’s no incentive for us to have children,” she said. “We know that children are expensive, that college debt is high. And women know as soon as we have a baby, our earning potential is marginalized.”

With the pandemic shining a spotlight on inequities for working women and people of color, Ziniewicz, Flanagan and other speakers on Tuesday said now is the time to address societal inequities that predate the first coronavirus infection.

“We have been experiencing these gaps and disparities for a long time and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated those disparities,” Flanagan said. If we’re not going to address these issues now when they are looking us in the face, believing the experiences that women are having, then we’re not going to do it.”