Nearly 3 million American women have left the labor force over the past year in a coronavirus-induced exodus that reflects persistent pay inequality, undervalued work and antiquated notions of caregiving.
Before the pandemic, women consisted more than 50% of the country’s workforce, underlining their importance to the economy. But that number has dropped sharply as many women, particularly mothers of young children, have been furloughed or laid off. Many others have had to choose between showing up at front-line jobs or caring for their children who, with daycare centers closed and school underway remotely, would otherwise be left without supervision.
Indeed, women remain 2.8 percentage points below their November 2019 labor force participation rate, according to the Minneapolis Fed. The government’s latest employment data, released Friday, shows that women’s participation in the labor force declined in January, while men’s stayed flat.
The urgent need for childcare at home has also pushed other working mothers, with spouses or partners earning more than they do, to withdraw from the workforce in order to take over childcare responsibilities. Despite such conditions, experts say there are ways to reverse the drain of working women caused by the pandemic.
Old problems, new solutions
One key part of the solution: Addressing an ongoing childcare crisis in the U.S. through federal and state-run initiatives, as well as support from private employers.
“The pandemic has exacerbated and shed light on a longstanding problem, which is lack of policies that enable folks to balance caregiving responsibilities and work responsibilities,” said Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on work-family balance and pay equity.
Women, and women of color in particular, overwhelmingly occupy so-called essential jobs at nursing homes and grocery stores, for example, that require them to physically show up to work. Many are also parents with young children at home who need constant care and oversight.
“Think of jobs in health care, grocery stores and other essential functions of life. By and large, we disproportionately see women in many of those low-paid jobs. Women are often in a bind in terms of being able to figure out, ‘How do I juggle this work where I have to go? I can’t work from home, but my kids are at home,” Frye said.
In many cases, the answer is, “I can’t.”
“For a lot of those women, they are dropping out entirely or experiencing uneven levels of unemployment,” Frye said.
Those who’ve manage to stay employed face a different set of challenges at home. “They are dealing with problems on the back end, asking themselves, ‘How do I deal with the fact that my kid has to be virtually schooled?’ That’s why people say there has been this disproportionate effect of women,” Frye added.
Outdated views of women
The pandemic has also put the spotlight back on the caregiving work that for years women have been counted on to provide, often for little or no pay.
“Caregiving is still largely perceived as a female function,” Frye said. “The pandemic has been, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime event, but we will have failed if we don’t learn the lesson about the lack of support for caregiving. We need to be intentional about creating the policies necessary to support not only women, but families,” she said.
Others agree the crisis stems from outdated, but persistent, views of women in the workforce.
“This situation has forced us to take a look at disrupting the very insidious, outdated narrative that women are only vital in the workplace so long as their parenting needs don’t get in the way,” said Hilary Berger, a career counselor and founder of Work Like a Mother, which offers job counseling and other services.
“Our society lacks the scaffolding that should be built in so women can protect their professional earning power and also take care of their children,” she added.
Investing in childcare
A crisis in childcare existed even before the pandemic, as working women have long faced inflexible workplace policies and sky-high childcare costs. Federal investment in the childcare sector is critical to getting women back to work, and allowing them to stay there, expert said.
“Not only will these investments preserve jobs by keeping this critical industry afloat, but they will also help avoid a cataclysmic setback in gender equity,” reads an October 2020 paper from the Center for American Progress.
It’s important to invest in childcare centers, so their spaces can be improved, and childcare workers’ wages should get a boost, too.
What companies can do
There’s a role for companies to play as well. Childcare subsidies for working parents should be viewed as the norm rather than a job perk.
“We need to treat the issue of caregiving as something that is more than a nice benefit to give,” Frye said.
Policies that provide flexibility and support for working parents will be key to attracting and retaining top talent.
“Unless employers can bring back or retain their women talent, future recruitment efforts, as well as future economic success, will be compromised,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior Vice President of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Hannah Bomze, the founder of the 18-month old New York City real estate app Casa Blanca, is well aware of the challenges faced by working parents. About 95% of her staffers are women and many are mothers.
Barrie Granito, an employee at Casa Blanca and single parent of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates that she can set her own hours and count on her colleagues for backup when needed.
“One reason why I came to Casa Blanca is because we work as a team, and other moms are on the team including the owner. You get out as much as you put in, so I can spend half the day with my son and then go show an apartment,” Granito said.
Flexibility for low-wage workers
The kind of low-wage jobs mostly performed by women, including working in retail and restaurants, often lack paid leave benefits and offer little flexibility. Paid time off and paid medical leave should be universal and mandatory, particularly for those workers who need it the most, some experts contend.
“Paid sick leave is really important for moms who are at home also shouldering caretaking responsibilities. Being able to take off to care for a family member is critically important so they still have job stability,” said Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It’s essential to women being able to participate fully in the workforce.”
Greater enforcement around equal pay laws is also in order, according to experts. That means funding agencies that protect against wage discrimination.
Corrective measures must also directly address raising wages generally and in specific industries.
“It might feel peripheral but it’s essential to how you value people doing work,” Frye said.