Skip to the content

Unequally Essential: Women and the Gender Pay Gap During COVID-19

From US Census Bureau

Unequally Essential: Women and the Gender Pay Gap During COVID-19

Women Represent Majority of Workers in Several Essential Occupations

Thirty-four million women work in jobs officially classified as essential; and women represent the majority of workers in several occupations, including health care, education, personal care and sales and office occupations.

Because women make up a large portion of the essential workforce, they have played a critical role in the U.S. economy and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite women’s substantial presence in essential jobs, the disparity between total median earnings for women and men exists across occupations deemed essential.

Equal Pay Day — timed to represent how far into the year women must work to equal what men earned the previous year — is on March 24 this year. That’s earlier than it’s ever been since its inception in 1996. Last year, it occurred on March 31.

In 2019, women earned 82 cents to every dollar earned by men. In addition to Women’s History Month, it is an important reminder that the gender pay gap is narrowing but continues.

Who Are Essential Workers?

Using guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, we identified 312 detailed occupations from the 2019 American Community Survey where workers provide services essential to the continued operations of the economy in face of unprecedented challenges associated with COVID-19.

The list identifies workers in the following broad categories: health care, education, telecommunications, information technology systems, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, and law enforcement.

Based on these criteria, 72% of the workforce is classified as full-time, year-round essential workers — an estimated 82 million. Women hold 42% of the nation’s full-time, year-round jobs designated as essential.

Women represent the majority of essential workers among education, health care, personal care, and sales and office occupations.

Your Health Care Is in Women’s Hands

Women have driven the overall employment growth in health care and play a key role in everyday health care needs associated with COVID-19. Women comprise 73% of health care practitioners and technical occupations identified as essential. Women also make up an ever-larger proportion (86%) of essential health care support workers.

Registered nurses are one of the most common health care related occupations. Around 2.5 million of the nation’s full-time, year-round workers and 87% of registered nurses are women. Despite women’s large presence in health care occupations, the gender wage gap remains.

Male nurses had higher median earnings than female nurses in 2019: $73,603 compared with $68,509.

Teachers and Child Care Workers

For the past year, teachers have been spending long hours online in virtual classrooms but are gradually returning to in-person instruction as COVID-19 vaccines become available.

Large shares of working women are in education. For example, 80% of elementary and middle-school teachers and 97% of preschool and kindergarten teachers are female.

Similar patterns of pay disparity are found here, too. In 2019, male elementary and middle-school teachers reported higher median earnings than women in the same jobs: $57,041 compared with $51,787 for women.

Among preschool and kindergarten teachers, women earned $30,537, which was not statistically different from men’s earnings of $31,149.

Parents and employers rely on child care workers so they can work and conduct business. Child care workers were also predominantly female (95%) and earned about $27,000 less per year than median earnings ($50,078) for all workers across all occupations.

Keeping Our Stores Open

Retail jobs are among some of the most common occupations in a variety of industries, including grocery and drug stores. Around 75% of cashiers are women but only 45% of women are first-line supervisors of retail sales workers.

Cashiers are among the lowest-paid members in the retail workforce. In 2019, the median earnings of female cashiers and first-line retail sales supervisors were $22,032 and $36,432, respectively; men in the same jobs earned $24,616 and $50,270.

Statistics in this story come from the 2019 American Community Survey’s Women and Men’s Detail Occupations and Median Earnings Table. Guidance on identifying essential occupations can be found in the Standard Occupational Classification definitions.


Lynda Laughlin and Megan Wisniewski are survey statisticians in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division.