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.
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.
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.
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.”
Last year, 700,000 parents left the workforce entirely to take care of children. Two-thirds of them were mothers.
Child care is essential. In the future we deserve, no parent will have to choose between work and their family.
— Women's March (@womensmarch) January 29, 2021
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.
Yes, women and in particular mothers have been pushed out of the workforce in droves as a result of the pandemic + systemic inequality. But also because American capitalism relies on free labor from women *and* because we can't figure out how to value labor that's unpaid
— Amy Westervelt (@amywestervelt) February 5, 2021
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.”
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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