Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Pandemic unemployment is cutting into stock market returns for women

October 12, 2021, 7:20 PM UTC

COVID drove millions of women out of the workforce. And employment rates aren’t expected to recover until 2024—more than two years after things return to normal for men.

“It’s called the she-cession for a reason,” says Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments and cochair of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, during a virtual session at the conference Tuesday. Particularly because many women needed to stay at home to care for children or help educate them with in-person schooling closed down, they have been disproportionately impacted. “That’s been especially acute for women of color,” Hobson says.

This could end up working against women in terms of their long-term financial security, particularly because of time they are losing to invest in their 401(k) plans, say Hobson and Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

401(k)s are the primary entry point into the stock market for most Americans—and particularly for women and people of color, says Schwab-Pomerantz, citing research from Ariel Investments and Schwab. “There’s a direct correlation between people who invest in their 401(k) plan and those who have investment accounts outside of work,” she says.

Missing a few months of contributions to a 401(k) plan compounds. “Even little amounts make a huge, huge difference,” Hobson says. “There’s a lot of catch-up that needs to happen when it comes to both Black, certainly, as well as white women.” 

Over the long term, there tends to be significant disparities in terms of both gender and race in access to the financial markets. About two-thirds of white women are investing in the stock market, while only about half of Black women are doing the same. That’s compared with 78% of white men. “That is a gaping difference over time,” Hobson says.

But there is some good news: a surge of young women entering the stock market for the first time during the pandemic. “A lot of new, first-time investors are younger, and they’re participating at the same rate, regardless of race,” says Hobson. “That was the most exciting piece of data that we had.”

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.