Women in the workforce have rebounded, but they’re still facing big headwinds

March 10, 2023, 7:02 PM UTC
woman working on construction site
Women's labor force participation rate has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
RyanJLane/Getty Images

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 13.6 million women lost their jobs as travel halted, stores shuttered, and many restaurants saw their business bottom out overnight. 

Women, who are traditionally over-represented in these service and retail sectors, experienced a much bigger employment dip than the estimated 11.9 million men who lost their jobs. 

Nearly three years later, the labor force participation rate of working women (ages 25 to 54) has finally, fully rebounded. In February, 77.2% of prime-age women were working or actively looking for a job, on par with the pre-pandemic rate of 77%, according to Friday’s jobs report.

In contrast, the labor force participation rate for prime-age men has yet to fully rebound: it was 88.9% last month, still below the pre-pandemic level of 89.2% recorded in February 2020. While that raises questions on why prime-age men’s return to the workforce lags, men’s workforce participation is still roughly 12 points higher than women.

But while the rebound of female workers is encouraging, it doesn’t show how precarious this recovery may be. Last month, women gained 49.8% of the estimated 311,000 new job gains, now holding 75 million jobs. Yet overall, 10 million more adult men (over age 20) had jobs over women in February. 

And the unemployment for adult women (over 20) ticked up slightly from 3.1% to 3.2%, though still lower than 2022 levels.

The uptick in unemployment is concerning, particularly the jump in unemployment rates for Black women and Latinas—who are looking at their highest unemployment rate in a year, writes Kate Gallagher Robbins, a senior fellow with the National Partnership for Women & Families. 

“This means as the labor market shows signs of softening, groups of women who have long been marginalized are poised to bear the brunt of that change,” according to Robbins. 

Moreover, the growth of small business payrolls in women-intensive sectors such as retail and service have consistently lagged behind other sectors during the pandemic, according to a recent report based on Bank of America internal data on small business accounts. Women’s wages have also risen more slowly over the past 12 months, researchers noted. 

The slower job growth in women-intensive industries is likely tied, in no small part, to limited labor supply, Bank of America’s report notes. That’s not helped by the fact that the “child care sector, which both employs women and empowers parents to participate in the workforce, added 4,000 jobs, but remains 60,000 short of pre-pandemic levels,” according to Laura Valle-Gutierrez, a fellow at The Century Foundation. 

“Job growth has happened despite the U.S.'s failure to invest in building a care economy. That means that women are taking on more work and care responsibilities—often sacrificing family time; job advancement; or their own health,” Valle-Gutierrez says.

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