Although the pandemic has spared no one, it has had a disproportionate impact on working women. Over the past year, females have been more likely to leave the workforce due to job losses or conflicts with the added responsibilities surrounding childcare and household sustainability. As the economy recovers, these valuable members of the workforce will be essential. The latest Census numbers make that abundantly clear. Moreover, for many, working is indispensable for financial stability.
From February to April of 2020, employment for women aged 20 and over fell by 12.2 million, a 17.0% decrease. Over the same period, female unemployment increased by 8.6 million and 3.8 million left the labor force altogether. Since then, the situation has improved somewhat, but there remain 3.7 million (5.1%) fewer women employed as of March 2021 than at the pre-pandemic peak. In addition, women, specifically mothers with school-aged children, have been slower to re-enter the workforce. Current projections from numerous sources estimate that female employment might not fully recover until 2024, a full two years after their male counterparts.
One critical issue is childcare. About one-third of working women in 2019 had children under 18, and pandemic-induced disruptions caused some to decide they could not (or did not wish to) continue. Even for many who had options for remote employment, the additional responsibilities of assisting with remote education have been substantial. Affordable childcare, already lacking prior to the pandemic and much worse in its wake, would help women return to work, as will reaching the point with vaccines and therapeutics that schools can fully open across the nation.
The continuing trend for flexible work arrangements will be beneficial, but challenges remain. There are legitimate concerns that staying out of the office could not only place an additional burden on professional women, but also reduce their prospects for advancement. (Evidence suggests that males are more likely to opt to work in the office, interact with management, and maintain visibility.)
For our economy and society, there is clear value to work-life balance irrespective of gender. For women, these boundaries can be particularly difficult to navigate for a variety of systemic reasons. Facilitating the return of women to the workforce in a complex post-pandemic environment will be difficult. Initiatives such as improved, affordable, and accessible childcare and innovative office situations are essential elements of the solution. With the lowest population growth rate since the 1930s (with counting occurring prior to the effects of COVID) and shortages already appearing in many industries and areas, the long-term need for an abundant workforce is obvious. Maintaining viable options for women will improve growth and productivity and, more importantly, enhance the lives of countless women, children, families, and communities. Stay safe!