In the 1960s, ‘white glove girls’ were encouraged to have temporary posts rather than careers © Alamy

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

In 1961, Elmer Winter, co-founder of American temp agency Manpower, published A Woman’s Guide to Earning a Good Living. He wanted to persuade married women (and, crucially, their husbands) that they could go to work without threatening the natural order of things. Winter’s genius, writes historian Louis Hyman in his book, Temp, was to “justify women’s work without undermining male authority”. Manpower’s “white glove girls” would have temporary posts rather than careers, Winter wrote, and their earnings would be purely supplemental, allowing families to buy “a second car” or build “a recreation room”.

But the old order was already on its way out. The proportion of men participating in the US workforce peaked in the 1950s and has been declining ever since. The steady influx of women into the labour market became vital to sustaining growth in household living standards, not just in the US. This was especially true after recessions, which tended to hit men’s jobs harder.

Not this time. Women are over-represented in sectors most hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic: they account for about 60 per cent of workers in accommodation services and retail across OECD countries, rising to 75 per cent or more of the retail sectors in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Women in the developing world account for the large majority of workers in the hugely disrupted garment manufacturing industry.

They have also tended to bear the brunt of school and childcare closures. In the UK, mothers were more likely to have asked to be furloughed than fathers. In the US, the proportion of women in the labour force has dropped back to the same level it was when Ronald Reagan was president.

To some extent, women’s jobs will recover when these sectors reopen fully and demand revives. But the Covid-19 crisis has exposed problems that have persisted for years. It also offers an opportunity to sort them out.

Take Japan. Although known for its patriarchal society of “salarymen” and housewives, Japan’s female employment rate had been rising before the pandemic. But like the “white glove girls”, many Japanese women were not admitted into the heart of corporate Japan. The majority had “non-regular” contracts with less security and fewer benefits. These jobs were the first to be shed when the pandemic hit. Many mothers, especially in Japan where regular jobs are characterised by long hours and presenteeism, have had to trade pay and security for flexibility.

Line chart of Female employment rate (% of women aged 15-64)  showing Japanese women have been getting jobs - but these have been the first to go in the downturn

Yet the pandemic has also brought hope. Forced to experiment with remote working, Japanese companies from Fujitsu to Hitachi have realised workers can be just as productive, probably more so, without long hours in the office. Japanese parents, in particular, are likely to become less tolerant of employers who cling to the past.

“Old habits die hard, but I hope Covid will mark a watershed moment for Japan’s work culture, which is a far more insidious killer,” one worker said in a comment on a Financial Times article. Although Japan is an extreme example, a redesign of traditional jobs — more trust, less presenteeism — is likely to benefit parents everywhere.

The US typifies another problem. In stark contrast to the trend in most other rich countries, labour force participation among American women levelled off about 20 years ago at a fairly low rate. It grew a little recently thanks to the tight labour market, but Covid-19 has triggered a sharp drop back.

Line chart of US female labour force participation rate (%) showing In the US a lack of childcare support has seen female participation return to 1980s levels

Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, says the fragile attachment of American women to the labour market is the consequence of the country’s woeful caregiving infrastructure. “Just like we need roads to drive down to get to work or deliver our goods to market, we need a childcare and caregiving infrastructure that allows people to . . . go to work.” The US does not provide statutory paid parental leave to all employees, unlike almost every other country, while affordable childcare is in short supply. Other economies, including the UK, suffer from expensive childcare too.

Latest coronavirus news

Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.

Polling since the pandemic began shows that a majority of both Democratic and Republican voters now support the idea of higher congressional funding for childcare. Whoever wins next month’s US presidential election, improving childcare should be a political and economic no-brainer.

The pandemic has been tough on women. But it also presents a chance to fix problems that have gone unaddressed since the days of the white glove girls. This would be in everyone’s interests. Women aren’t just working for “second car” money these days — the fate of the economy depends on them.

Get alerts on Employment when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article