A ‘Staggering’ 2.6 Million Women Have Left the Workforce Since the Pandemic Started

African mother with her smiling daughter using digital tablet at home.
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Women have left the workforce in droves during the pandemic, with 2.6 million women not working anymore since February 2020. That may not be a surprise – but it’s important to take a look at that number in context, especially given the Labor Department’s January jobs report today, which revealed that 49,000 jobs had been added last month.

See: US Adds 49,000 Jobs in January, But There’s Still Risk of a ‘Double-Dip Recession’
Find: Pandemic Widens Retirement Planning Gender Gap

Following the report’s release, White House economists Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein said job gains continued to be weak, and that while the unemployment rate fell to 6.3%, from 6.7% in December, it still remains 2.8 percentage points above the pre-pandemic rate in February 2020.

“Over this same time period, more than 4 million workers have dropped out of the labor force, disproportionately women,” they said in a statement.

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They added that while the unemployment rate for men and women is relatively similar, women have left the labor force in “staggering numbers,” a phenomenon reflected in the employment rate among women age 25 to 54, which is down 4.1 percentage points since February 2020, compared to a decrease of 3.9 percentage points among men.

From rearranging work schedules or helping with remote learning, “pandemic parenting” is reshaping the workforce. “The larger decrease for women is unusual and likely reflects both the industries that this pandemic has hit and increased care responsibilities that have been pulling women out of the labor force,” Boushey and Bernstein say.

See: What 2020 Meant for Women in the Workforce
Find: Why the US Economy Isn’t Ready for Another Wave of the Coronavirus

Rhiannon Staples, CMO of HR management platform Hibob, tells GOBankingRates that because of the pandemic and the large shift toward fully remote work and virtual school women have taken on more of the responsibility, and as such, have experienced more of an impact on their wellbeing than men.

“A study we conducted at Hibob showed that women’s mental health was 10% worse than men’s since the start of the pandemic, and 25% of women reported a decrease in job satisfaction, whereas fewer men were impacted,” Staples says. “It is the responsibility of companies to make their workplaces – especially while remote – more supportive and flexible for employees who are balancing the responsibility of a job and family. Companies are starting to make this shift, but there is still work to be done.”

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See: The S&P 500’s Top 10 Companies for Women
Find: 8 Reasons Women Should Get a Financial Advisor Right Now

A McKinsey report, “Women in the Workplace,” released in the fall, confirms this, noting that the pandemic has intensified challenges that women already face in the workplace and “has disrupted corporate America in ways we’ve never seen before.”

Women–especially mothers, senior-level women and Black women–have faced distinct challenges. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to Covid-19.

“Working mothers have always worked a double shift–a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now, the supports that made this even possible for women–including school and childcare–have been upended,” according to the report.

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The report underscores the fact that this is a critical moment for corporate America. “Companies risk losing women in leadership–and future women leaders–and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

See: Pandemic Job Losses Hitting Gen Z the Hardest
Find: 25 Companies Laying Off the Most People Thanks to Coronavirus

McKinsey however also says that this crisis also represents an opportunity, notably if companies make significant investments in building a “more flexible and empathetic workplace”–noting there are signs that this is starting to happen. By doing so, they can retain the employees most impacted by today’s crises and create more opportunities for women to succeed in the long term.

“Corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices that companies make today will have consequences both for their organizations and society,” according to the report. In the meantime, for those women still employed, a pay gap remains – what happens after the pandemic will prove crucial in many ways.

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About the Author

Yaël Bizouati-Kennedy is a full-time financial journalist and has written for several publications, including Dow Jones, The Financial Times Group, Bloomberg and Business Insider. She also worked as a vice president/senior content writer for major NYC-based financial companies, including New York Life and MSCI. Yaël is now freelancing and most recently, she co-authored  the book “Blockchain for Medical Research: Accelerating Trust in Healthcare,” with Dr. Sean Manion. (CRC Press, April 2020) She holds two master’s degrees, including one in Journalism from New York University and one in Russian Studies from Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France.
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