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Nearly 2 Million Fewer Women in Labor Force

A woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her.

​Federal data shows that men are entering the job market in droves despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Women are not.

From February 2020 to January 2022, male workers regained all jobs they had lost due to the public health crisis, according to an analysis by the National Women's Law Center of the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. However, 1.1 million women left the labor force during that span, accounting for 63 percent of all jobs lost.

While women gained 188,000 jobs in January 2022, they are still short by more than 1.8 million jobs lost since February 2020. It would take women nearly 10 months of growth at January's level to regain the jobs they lost, the NWLC report indicated.

"While men have recouped lost jobs, women are still in a big hole, and that shows how the pandemic impacts genders in different ways," said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at NWLC. "Part of the reason for this is because women still hold the lion's share of caregiver responsibilities."

Impact of Child Care

Millions of women left the job market to care for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools and day cares closed to prevent the spread of disease. But this trend isn't new. Women left the workforce at higher rates than men did even before the pandemic, according to research by the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co.

The McKinsey report found that the pandemic worsened this development: Women with children were significantly more likely than men with children to leave their jobs in 2020. That year, 1 in 4 women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career, versus 1 in 5 men.

"Two years into the pandemic, that instability continues as kids are out of school or care for weeks at a time due to quarantine," Martin said. "Women are still the ones that are likely to step in to fill the gap."

Deb Boelkes, award-winning author of Women on Top: What's Keeping You from Executive Leadership (Business World Rising, 2021), said women are also more likely than men to care for older, disabled or ill family members.

"In many families, the lowest-wage-earning spouse chose to voluntarily resign to care for their at-home children or other family members," Boelkes said. "Many women found juggling business responsibilities with homeschooling, child care and elder care simply wasn't worth the effort or the income to justify staying in the job."

Difficulties for Women of Color

The pandemic greatly affected industries dominated by women of color, including food service, leisure, hospitality and retail. Women of color quit or were laid off in large numbers as the pandemic progressed. Many are struggling to find work or are not looking.

"As the pandemic went on, businesses barely able to hang on had little choice but to cut staff," Boelkes said. "Some women volunteered for layoffs in exchange for collecting unemployment. Many were paid more on unemployment, thanks to federal stimulus dollars."

The NWLC report showed that unemployment rates among women of color were higher than those for white women.

In January 2022, 3.6 percent of all women were jobless. However, nearly 5 percent of Latinas and nearly 6 percent of Black women were unemployed. Women with disabilities were most affected, as nearly 8 percent of this group were jobless, the NWLC report showed.

Unemployment rates do not include people who left the labor force entirely and are no longer looking for work. Had those individuals been included, about 5 percent of all women, 5.4 percent of Latinas and 7.3 percent of Black women would be considered unemployed, per the NWLC report.

Martin believes discrimination contributes to high jobless rates among minority women.

"Women of color face more obstacles in job seeking due to conscious and unconscious bias," she said. "They are also more likely to be single parents, and the pandemic makes it harder to find caregiving, which affects their employment."

Long periods of unemployment can make it harder to find jobs due to the negative stigma some employers associate with gaps in employment. Upon finding a job, these workers may not earn as much as they once did, Martin said.

"The pandemic's impact on women and women of color, in particular, threatens women's economic security in the future," she added. "This country is really facing fundamental questions—whether we're going to make long-term investments in child care, paid leave and paid sick days that help ensure that caregiving responsibilities don't have this terrible economic impact."


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