Women’s workforce participation has plummeted. Here’s how to reverse the trend

February 4, 2022, 7:10 PM UTC
The additional burden of childcare during the pandemic was disproportionately shouldered by women owing to gendered domestic roles.
Dania Maxwell—Getty Images

As we mark two years since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and day-care centers across the country, plenty of people have gone back to work, but the women’s workforce participation rate has not recovered.

In fact, the January jobs report found that 275,000 women left the workforce last month, leaving the women’s workplace participation rate at 57%—a rate that pre-pandemic had not been seen since 1988. An entire generation of progress has been erased in two years.

What we are seeing now is a triple whammy for women who want (or need!) to reenter the paid workforce: They face employers’ bias against long gaps in service, inertia in domestic labor arrangements based on gender roles, and a lack of a sense of urgency within a couple to proactively support a woman’s paid employment. The result could be even longer career breaks, further exacerbating the penalties these women will pay.

For the millions of women who left the paid workforce at the start of the pandemic and haven’t yet returned, the two-year mark is significant. This is the point at which the gap in work history becomes much harder to overcome. In fact, as two years turn into three, one study suggests the chances of getting an interview fall by more than 50%.

Employer bias is not the only barrier that women will need to overcome to get back to paid work. Entrenched gender roles within different-sex couples can push women out of the workforce more readily and make it harder for them to return.

A paper by sociologist Jessica Calarco found that different-sex, dual-earner couples grappled with the increased parenting duties of the pandemic in mostly unequal ways, even when that was a reversion from formerly more egalitarian relationships and even when those arrangements negatively affected mothers. These traditionally gendered arrangements were justified as a matter of “practicality” if the mother could more easily work remotely but also by the concept that mothers are “more natural” at caregiving in situations where it was less practical. In other words, “it just made sense” for Mom to do more, and if it actually didn’t make sense, then, well, she’s just better at it.

It’s not surprising then to find that different-sex couples view a woman’s unemployment differently than they do a man’s. Early in 2020, before the pandemic was even a factor, sociologist Aliya Hamid Rao published a book titled Crunch Time, in which she found that heterosexual couples treated unemployment differently depending on whether it was the man or the woman who was unemployed, even in cases where the woman’s income was equal to or greater than the man’s. Women’s unemployment was not treated as an urgent priority, and couples did not protect her time from additional unpaid labor in order to accommodate for job hunting.

Of course, these three factors were all in place long before the pandemic. This is why women’s workforce participation rates stalled back in the ’90s.

It’s not just the individual women taking the financial hit who suffer. If women leave the workforce when they don’t want to, can’t return when they do want to, or aren’t promoted because they have school pickup at 3 p.m. every weekday, we all miss out. Their time and talents aren’t contributing to our economy and solving the problems of our society.

If we want to stop the caregiving crisis from killing women’s careers, we need corporate America to wake up and realize that they are part of the problem and that other barriers beyond their control need to be recognized and addressed. Employers need to grapple with their own bias around career breaks, specifically those for caregiving, and welcome people who want to return to paid work—whether they’ve been out for two years or 20. They need to implement policies of paid leave and flexible schedules that will make it realistic for parents and other caregivers to work and care for their families, both on a daily basis and when big challenges throw the balance of the career/caregiving dynamic.

Corporate leaders also need to stop treating the infrastructure of care as if it is not their problem. The pandemic made clear this isn’t true: Employers lost valuable employees when schools and day cares closed, and staff shortages ensued. Corporate leaders should provide private care benefits to support their employees and advocate for public solutions that would benefit everyone.

Finally, corporate leaders need to become more attuned to gender dynamics, both at home and in their offices and recognize the impact of those dynamics. Unequal domestic labor confers a competitive edge for some employees over others. Leaders should review pay and promotions to see if some employees have an unfair advantage that they are using to get ahead. Paid leave and flexibility programs must be made available to men, and leaders need to push the men on their teams to take leave so that people can see men are equally responsible and capable as caregivers.

Only when we start to address these systemic challenges will we be able to truly unleash the creative potential of everyone, regardless of gender or caregiving status.

Tami Forman is the executive director of Path Forward.

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