The US jobs recovery finally picked up steam again in October, but not everyone is benefiting: Many women who were forced to drop out of the labor force during the pandemic are still on the sidelines.
How to get them back could be a question on lawmakers’ minds for years to come.
As of October, the labor force participation rate for women was still nearly 2 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level. The number of women not in the labor force was nearly 3 million higher than before the pandemic.
That’s not only bad news for America’s women who want to work but can’t, it’s also bad for the economy, which would be stronger if everyone who wants a job can participate in it as a worker.
Where the pandemic has left working women
The Covid recession was an anomaly in that more women than men lost their jobs. This was partly because more women tend to work in the kinds of service-sector positions that disappeared by the millions during the height of the pandemic. Women also made up the majority of frontline workers.
“Additionally, women took on the majority of caring responsibilities, for older relatives and children alike,” noted Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell in Monday’s opening remarks at the Fed’s Gender and the Economy Conference.
“As schools closed and childcare services shuttered during the worst of the pandemic, that added responsibility and stress made working more difficult for some and took many away from their jobs,” Powell added.
Last year, a Fed survey showed that the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted childcare or school for nearly 70% of US parents, and 25% of mothers reported they worked less or didn’t work at all as a result.
In September last year, hundreds of thousands of women dropped out of the workforce, which was attributed to their children’s remote schooling needs.
Economists were hopeful there would be a reversal of the trend this September as many schools reopened and vaccinations helped the nation return to a modicum of normalcy. But there was no rush of women back into the job market this fall.
How will we get the women back?
While many workers on the sidelines are there because of care responsibilities, the pandemic has also led many people to rethink their job choices. The record-high quits rate in August was proof of that.
Public policy initiatives like care subsidies or universal pre-K could help alleviate the care burden and allow women to return to work while the tight labor market puts workers at an advantage. But the reasons keeping people out of the workforce are likely more complex than that.
“There just seem to be a lot of factors that are affecting people’s employment and labor force decisions now,” said Stephanie Aaronson, vice president and director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution.
Workers don’t want to go back to bad jobs, Aaronson noted. Plus, she added, people’s labor decisions tend to be persistent once made. And some women who may have thought that they would return to work after having a child could make a different decision in light of the pandemic.
“History shows us that big events can change people’s behavior,” she added, pointing to the shift in labor force participation after World War II. “It could be that we’re witnessing substantial changes in people’s relationship with work.”
It remains to be seen how long it will take America to get it’s female workforce back to its pre-pandemic size, but it could take years.
“It will be a slow recovery for labor force participation,” Aaronson said.