The pandemic “shecession” is fading as more women return to jobs across the country, aided by new workplace flexibility that could lock in future increases in female employment.
Remote work, a loosening of 9-5 workday constraints and evolving ideas such as “returnships” to help women back to careers after extended absences all could make it easier for women, especially those with children, to hold jobs.
Women’s employment gains have outpaced men’s for six of the past eight months, according to a Stateline analysis of federal statistics through March of this year. The data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey provided by the University of Minnesota.
The number of women with jobs is higher now than at any other point since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, though it is still below pre-pandemic levels. During the early months of the pandemic, women lost 1.7 million more jobs than men.
Women already have caught up to their pre-pandemic employment levels in New England and on the West Coast, where there is a high proportion of white-collar jobs in the knowledge economy and in tech that can be performed remotely. The ability to work from home is especially welcome to women raising families or caring for older relatives.
Women’s employment lags the most in the Midwest, where there are many manufacturing jobs that can’t be done remotely. In that region, women hold almost 800,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic, according to the Stateline analysis. Meanwhile, in the West Coast region (which includes Alaska and Hawaii), there are more than 400,000 more women working as of this March compared with February 2020.
However, mothers of small children still lag fathers in returning to the workplace nationwide, according to the Stateline analysis.
There are about 250,000 fewer mothers of small children at work than before the pandemic, compared with about 190,000 fewer fathers. More than 90% of fathers of small children are employed, a complete recovery to the pre-pandemic share. Mothers, though, still lag their own pre-pandemic employment rate by almost 2 points, at 68.6%.
Debra Lancaster, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said state governments “can and should be setting an example for the private sector” in providing flexibility for their employees.
More than 1 in 5 New Jersey households faced disruptions to their child care last year, forcing parents to either supervise children while working or leave their jobs, according to an April report co-written by Lancaster. But New Jersey’s new telework policy for state employees, announced in April by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, still requires parents to use paid or unpaid leave time if they have to supervise children during scheduled remote working hours.
In Hawaii, lawmakers are considering a plan to subsidize day care salaries to combat a shortage of workers, said Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. Nationwide, there are 150,000 fewer day care workers than before the pandemic, according to the Stateline analysis.
Another Hawaii bill last year was aimed at the state government’s prohibition on employees using their child care responsibilities to justify working remotely, Jabola-Carolus said. The bill has been held up because of criticism from the state employees’ union, which insists that legislation that changes working conditions should be part of labor negotiations.
That leaves Hawaii’s state employees in limbo, able to stay home for child care only if their supervisors agree, under emergency pandemic rules. Jabola-Carolus, who has two small children herself, said she’s lucky to have an understanding boss but that not all employees are so fortunate.
“I spent almost a year looking for day care for my youngest, and I had to send my other son an ocean away to stay with my mother in California for a while. That really hurt, the family separation,” said Jabola-Carolus. Her frustrations with pandemic work conditions, vented in an auto-reply to her work email in the summer of 2020 that went viral after she shared it on Instagram, became a rallying cry for pandemic mothers.
“I hope to respond to your message soon,” she wrote in the message, which has since been removed. “Like many women I am working full-time while tending to an infant and toddler full-time.” She noted that “the average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time for parents during COVID-19 was three minutes, 24 seconds.”
Utah has the highest share of children in the nation, about 29% of its population as of 2020. It has the first state-sponsored “returnship” program to help women get back to the workplace after an absence, typically to care for small children.
“What we are seeing is that while women left the workforce in droves due to the pandemic, a lot of our returners are returning not due to the pandemic's end, but due to inflation and rising costs,” said Shay Baker, program manager for the Return Utah program. “Staying home with families is harder than it was.”
Returnships are a form of mid-career internships that started in the late 2000s in financial services companies as a way to get more women into management roles, despite gaps in their resumes from child-rearing or moving to further a spouse’s career, said Carol Fishman Cohen, a consultant who helps design the programs.
More companies are retooling their returnship programs to help with pandemic career breaks, including Goldman Sachs in October, T-Mobile in November and PepsiCo this month. Some are cutting back the required absence time, typically two years, to accommodate shorter pandemic disruptions, and offering faster paths to jobs and more remote work for parents who still need to stay home.
Women who are parents of small children have been particularly hard hit, with school closings early in the pandemic forcing them to assume more child care duties, plus help little ones with remote learning. Even when schools reopened, there were unpredictable quarantines during outbreaks that made it harder for parents to work.
The kinds of jobs women are doing now have changed compared with before the pandemic. There are 1.3 million fewer jobs for them as administrative assistants, waitresses, retail salespeople, nursing assistants and child care workers, while the gains are in fields including mail-order, warehouses and couriers that thrive in remote conditions.
“Coming out of the pandemic we are seeing some great renegotiations, including more women taking higher paying full time jobs in men-dominated fields like warehousing and transportation,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
“Notably missing in the recovery are nursing care and child care jobs,” Hegewisch said. “Unless these [jobs] also become jobs worth returning to, the recovery will remain very partial for women.”
Stephanie Aaronson, a labor economist and director of the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said it’s too soon to tell whether the employment recovery for women will continue, but it no longer looks like the “shecession” it was once called.
“At this point women are not particularly lagging men in the recovery any longer,” Aaronson said. “There isn’t a huge difference now in how men and women are faring.”
But the fact that mothers and fathers are still faring differently is a sign that societal norms as well as policies have to change if men and women are to have equal access to employment in the future, according to a working paper published last year by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research and co-authored by Titan Alon, an assistant economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“The pandemic is likely to bring about changes in the post-pandemic workplace that open up the potential for much reduced gender inequality in the labor market,” the paper concluded.
“But for this potential to be realized, changes in the workplace are not enough; there also needs to be a shift in social norms and expectations that lead mothers and fathers to make more equal use of the added flexibility.”