But, as always, there’s more to the story, especially when it comes to one group who’s continually been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic’s economic devastation: women.
Women’s nonfarm payroll employment increased by 315,000 last month while men saw a gain of 601,000 jobs according to the National Women’s Law Center‘s calculation. The NWLC wrote that this rate translates to taking about 15 months to get women’s employment back to February 2020’s level of 76.3 million. For men, it will take a little over six months.
“At this point we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go,” Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC’s director of research, told Insider.
Still, there was a large increase in the net number of women who are at least 20 years old entering the labor force in March. However, March was another month of men exiting the labor force. The following chart highlights the monthly change in civilian labor force participation for men and women from the past several months:
Based on the chart, 495,000 women age 20 and over joined the labor force last month. This is much higher than the 26,000 that entered the labor force in February 2021. On the other hand, 117,000 men age 20 and over left the labor force last month, almost 40,000 higher than the 78,000 men who left a month earlier.
One concern, however, is the quality of the jobs that those women are taking, especially with a surge in leisure and hospitality employment.
“I think there’s a lot of people right now who are taking anything they can get,” Tucker said. Women moving into those jobs could lead to the wage gap widening later on.
With the uptick in women entering the labor force, their labor force participation rate has also slightly increased. The rate for women 20 years and over was 57.4% in March, 0.4 percentage points higher than February. Men’s rate continues to be much higher than women, although the rate ticked down by 0.1 percentage points to 69.5%. The following chart highlights the labor force participation rate for men and women over the past year:
Both women’s and men’s unemployment rates have declined from their pandemic peaks in April 2020 but are still higher than their pre-pandemic rates. The gap between the unemployment rates has narrowed and is now only a difference of 0.1 percentage point for people who are at least 20 years old. The following chart highlights the unemployment rate for men and women over the course of the pandemic:
“If we added all of the 1.8 million women who’ve dropped out of the labor force and added them to the ranks of the unemployed, women’s unemployment rate would have been 8% and men’s would have been 8% too – if we count the millions of men who’ve dropped out,” Tucker said.
She added: “Black women would have been 13.4%, and Latinas would have been 11.1%. These are crisis levels. We are, I think, still in a crisis here.”
Tucker said that measures like raising the minimum wage and implementing universal childcare will be key in creating a more equitable recovery.
“You can’t go to work if you don’t have a road to get there. You can’t go to work if you don’t have a safe place for your kid. Right. These are like synonymous things. Childcare is infrastructure and we need to treat it that way.”
A tale of two pandemics, even for women
The economic impact on women has also been bifurcated, depending on what profession they’re in, according to Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage. It’s not just a story of employment, or lack thereof.
“It’s important to understand that for low wage workers, it’s less of a a loss in terms of employment and jobs and more of an income loss,” Jayaraman said.
She said that conditions for workers in those jobs have been worsening, all while risk increases. Recent research from One Fair Wage found that, during the pandemic, female tipped workers reported tips were down, but harassment was up.
And so the recovery numbers – especially in the restaurant sector – may not tell the whole story. While jobs may be recovering there, with funding pouring in from the American Rescue Plan, the devastation for women working in the industry is “incomprehensible.”
On a policy level, the top priority should be raising the minimum wage, according to Jayaraman; 59% of the workers who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage are women.
“Last year, we started a relief fund for service workers; 240,000 workers applied for relief. And I can’t tell you the number of women waitresses who wrote to us and said, ‘I can no longer feed my children. The lines are too long at the food banks. I am now resorting to stealing food because I have no choice,'”Jayaraman said.
“Some of them wrote and said, ‘I can’t pay the electricity bill, so we don’t know how much longer we can be in touch with you.'”
Full economic recovery in the US might not be enough to close gender gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, JPMorgan researchers said.
The coronavirus and its economic fallout disproportionately slammed American women, with female-dominated sectors like hospitality and education hit the hardest by lockdowns. The greater share of domestic work that women perform in American society also prompted many to leave work and focus on caretaking. Where men made up the bulk of job losses seen during the financial crisis, the current recession has seen job losses land more equally.
Women aren’t just losing or leaving their jobs, either; they’re exiting the labor force entirely. The female labor participation rate, while up from its pandemic lows, still sits at its lowest level in 33 years. More than 2.3 million women have left the US labor force since the pandemic began, versus nearly 1.8 million men exiting the workforce.
Reviving the broader economy should pull some women back into the labor force, the team led by Joyce Chang said in a note to clients, adding Congress can and should do more to close the gap. Federal paid-leave policies for mothers can alleviate the burdens of balancing work with early child care, as can federally guaranteed family leave. Public child care and education programs can also incentivize women to stay employed, according to the team.
The nation’s gender pay gap held at roughly 18% for the past decade, and that spread could widen by another five percentage points if the pandemic’s effects aren’t reversed, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper cited by JPMorgan. Recessions historically fuel a 2-point narrowing of the wage gap.
Closing the gender wage gap is good for growth, nevermind society
Promoting workplace equality also has a tangible effect on economic growth. Narrowing the labor-participation gap between men and women by just 25% could lift US gross domestic product by 2%, according to the International Labor Organization. Fully closing the gap would boost GDP by 5%, the International Monetary Fund said.
“Continued focus on gender-responsive policies is required to counter the disproportionate burden women face in the current crisis – and more importantly, to prevent the economic damage from outlasting the virus itself,” JPMorgan’s researchers said.
Some steps have already been taken to help working women. Democrats’ latest stimulus plan includes a child-tax-credit program that will give families with children under the age of 5 up to $3,600 per child over the course of 2021. Those with children aged 6 to 17 can receive up to $3,000 per child.
The package also includes $40 billion for child-care assistance. The average US household spends nearly 23% of its income on child-care costs, according to JPMorgan. The stimulus’ inclusion of a child tax credit and direct relief for care providers helps lower the burden for mothers hoping to keep their jobs while raising children.
Erasing such inequality stands to build a more robust economy after the pandemic, the researchers said. The coronavirus crisis has prompted discussions around family support and flexible work arrangements “that could yield steps forward in the future,” they added.
Closing gender gaps in the US labor market can accelerate the economic recovery and provide a lasting boost to overall output, Moody’s Investors Service said Monday.
Gender disparities are nothing new to the US economy. Women earned less than men on average before the pandemic, and, during it, a lack of family-leave benefits forced many women out of the labor force as they assumed caretaking roles.
The gaps weighed on productivity before the pandemic, and the health crisis has only exacerbated the problems, the team led by Shahdiya Kureshi said.
For one, pursuing gender equality can swiftly lift gross domestic product. Closing the labor-participation gap by just 25% in the US would increase output by 2%, according to the International Labor Organization. Fully erasing the disparity would boost GDP by 5%, the International Monetary Fund estimated.
The recovery so far hasn’t been promising. Employment gains for both men and women were roughly the same from May 2020 to January 2021. Yet where men have retraced more than half of their decline in labor-force participation, women have only recovered 40% of their slump. This difference “weakened household consumption and financial stability” late in the pandemic, Moody’s said.
Within the prime working-age population of Americans 25 to 54 years old, labor-force participation among women plummeted and reversed years of steady gains. The rate peaked at 76.9% in January 2020 before plummeting as low as 73.5%.
The rate stood at roughly 75.5% at the start of 2021, the same level seen in January 2018.
One driving factor behind the harsher fallout is women’s overrepresentation in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. Pay in the food preparation, personal care, sales, and education industries – where women make up the majority of workers – is between 18% and 40% below the average median weekly earnings for women. These sectors also saw significant pay disparities between men and women, according to government data cited by Moody’s.
Mothers have also shouldered a heavier burden through the health crisis. Women aged between 24 and 44 who weren’t employed in July 2020 were nearly three times more likely than men to name childcare responsibilities for their lack of work, according to Census Bureau data.
Where Congress can step in
There are already a few clear steps policymakers can take to close the aforementioned gaps, Moody’s said. Passing national family- and maternity-leave policies can iron out differences seen across various state programs, the team said.
“As women assume most of the family caretaking role, dependent care responsibilities that are not subsidized or compensated can pose a significant barrier for women’s entry into the workforce,” they added.
Childcare costs have also surged in recent years, making the lack of sufficient leave policies even more taxing for women. Married couples with children under age 5 spend 10% of their average monthly income on care for a single child. That sum exceeds the 7% level deemed affordable by the Health and Human Services Department, Moody’s said.
There’s also legislation that can quickly narrow the gender pay gap. The Paycheck Fairness Act has recently been reintroduced and aims to improve pay transparency at companies. Taking up such legislation and other pay-equity measures can elevate women in the workplace, improve employee retention, and productivity, Moody’s said.
Working women have come a long way in the last 100 years.
In the 1920s, women entered the workforce in astonishing numbers as a result of the industrial revolution.
Then, as men were sent off to war, more women got involved in the wartime effort in factories and other professions previously dominated by men.
Women’s equality movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s gave even more opportunities to working women, and in recent years, more women were in the US workforce than men. However, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the women’s labor force participation rate to hit a 33-year low.
Here are 28 vintage photos that show how the role of women in the workforce has evolved in the last 100 years.
In the wake of the industrial revolution, more women than ever began to leave the household and go out to work.
Women held jobs as postal clerks, sorting letters and packages. While it wasn’t uncommon for women to work in post offices, very few women actually delivered mail. According to USPS, in 1920, only 5% of the nation’s 943 village carriers were women.
As village delivery was gradually phased out in favor of city delivery, a majority of the remaining women village carriers either resigned from their positions or were transferred to clerk positions.
Many women also began working in factories.
In 1920, women made up about 20% of the labor force, and many of them were involved in the manufacturing of apparel, food, and tobacco products.
Women of color, on the other hand, were largely employed in agriculture and domestic service work for much of the early 20th century.
During World War I, women held occupations in domestic and personal service, clerical occupations, and factory work.
Many women learned to type in order to secure higher-paying jobs in an office as a secretary or a typist in a clerical office, rather than having to work in a factory. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, working conditions, wages, and hours in clerical work were seen as the best at the time.
Clerical work attracted young, literate, mostly white women who would work as typists until they were married, only to be replaced by another young unmarried woman.
After the Women’s Bureau was established in the US Department of Labor on June 5, 1920, women had even more opportunities in the labor force.
In 1923, “Business Woman” published a list of 29 different jobs that women held in the film industry, apart from actresses. Job positions included that of a typist, secretary to the stars and executive secretary, costume designer, seamstress, telephone operator, hairdresser, script girl, film retoucher, title writer, publicity writer, musician, film editor, director, and producer, among others.
Women also held jobs as blacksmiths and worked on vehicles.
However, most occupations were seen solely as a precursor to marriage. Among married white women of both native and immigrant backgrounds, only around 10% held jobs. It was more common for married women of color to hold jobs, however, out of pure financial necessity.
Unemployed women during the Great Depression could join “SheSheShe” camps.
Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which only allowed men to join in exchange for free room and board, Eleanor Roosevelt started “SheSheShe” camps as a way for women to gain employment in environmental conservation as well.
Many families during the Great Depression were able to achieve middle-class status by adding another working member to the household – in many cases, a woman.
Many women during the Great Depression found work as secretaries, teachers, telephone operators, and nurses. Women also made an income by sewing clothes in Works Progress Administration (WPA) sewing rooms, which manufactured men’s trousers, boys’ coveralls, baby clothes, dresses, and diapers.
During World War II, women assisted in manufacturing wartime necessities like gas masks. By 1945, one in every four married women worked in jobs outside the home.
According to Forbes, between 1940 and 1945, female participation in the US workforce increased from 27% to nearly 37%.
Before the war, women were in traditionally “female” fields such as nursing and teaching. By 1943, women made up 65% of the US aircraft industry’s workforce.
In 1935, women made 25% less than men for government jobs. In 1942, even though the War Labor Board required these women to be paid the same as men, the war ended before they could receive equal pay.
In 1935, a law titled the National Recovery Act required women who held jobs within the government to receive 25% less pay than men in the same jobs, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. During wartime in 1942, the War Labor Board ruled that women would be paid the same as male workers who were now away at war.
Women were largely seen as “supplemental” workers in the 1950s, meaning their income was secondary to their husband’s.
Even though there were technically more women in the workforce in 1952 than during the war, women were not taken seriously in regards to their careers.
Women returned to stereotypically “feminine” jobs – in some cases, jobs were advertised as for women only.
Many women were forced to give up the jobs they had worked in during wartime to male soldiers returning home. The most popular jobs for women during the 1950s were secretaries, bank tellers or clerical workers, sales clerks, private household workers, and teachers, according to The Week.
Female secretaries in the 1950s gained a reputation for being young and attractive. In fact, a 1959 quiz from a secretarial training program in Waco, Texas, asking women if they have what it takes to be a secretary includes “smiling readily and naturally” and being “usually cheerful” among its requirements.
The 1950s marked the beginning of the “jet age,” and many young women found work as flight attendants, then called “stewardesses.”
Flight attendants during the 195os became symbols of the golden age of flying — when traveling by air was seen as the height of sophistication and glamour. However, with this “glamorous” career also came a host of sexist protocols.
According to Conde Nast Traveler, women were not allowed to work as flight attendants after they reached the ages of 32 to 35, while male flight attendants could work well into their 60s. In 1957, Trans World Airlines dropped its no-marriage rule for female flight attendants. However, many airlines continued to only hire non-married female flight attendants.
While many women joined the workforce, they were nevertheless expected to fulfill their duties at home, in what would be coined “the second shift.”
After women returned home from their secretarial or office jobs, they had another job to do — caring for the children, doing the housekeeping, and, of course, putting a hot dinner in front of their husband.
This became known as the “second shift.” If women didn’t hold office or other jobs during the day, they were relegated to being “housewives.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, women found creative ways to make their own incomes from their homes.
Many suburban women began selling Tupperware out of their own homes in what became known as “Tupperware parties.”
“Tupperware … took those moms out of the kitchen where they were ‘supposed to be’ and let them enter the workforce, and let them have something outside the home,” Lorna Boyd, whose mother Sylvia was an at-home Tupperware seller in the 1960s, told the Smithsonian Institution.
While technology-based and other computer programming jobs may now be dominated by men, the same jobs were considered “women’s work” in the 1960s.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, “computer girls” became a term for “savvy young women” pursuing careers in computer programming. Computer programming was seen as “easy work” similar to typing or filing, so many women ended up building the field that would come to be known as software development.
Women soon made up a majority of the trained workforce in the computing industry.
However, the work was seen as “unskilled.”
“Women were seen as an easy, tractable labor force for jobs that were critical and yet simultaneously devalued,” technology historian Marie Hicks said in her book “Programmed Inequality,” according to The Guardian.
In the 1960s, multiple pieces of legislation were passed to protect women in the workplace from discrimination.
Title VII was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protecting workers from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
In 1963, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed in order to protect men and women who perform “substantially equal work in the same establishment” from sex-based wage discrimination.
Other strides were made for women in the late 1970s. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This meant that women could start building families without fearing how it would affect their careers.
Women in the workforce in the 1980s continued to make strides, but there was still a ways to go.
According to The Atlantic, in 1985, half of all college graduates were women. However, only 41% of women between the ages of 25 and 44 held full-time year-round jobs.
Even in the mid-1980s, women themselves saw their own careers as inferior to their husbands’. According to The Atlantic, which cited a 1985 Roper survey, only 10% of women said that a husband should turn down a “very good job” in another city “so the wife can continue her job.”
However, women of the 1980s made history in their fields. Dr. Mae Jemison was among 15 new astronauts named by NASA and became the first black female shuttle flyer.
In recent years, women held more jobs than men in the US workforce.
At the start of 2020, there are now 109,000 more women working than men, and women in the US made up 50.4% of the labor force.
Sectors that traditionally hire women, like healthcare and education, were growing, and other industries previously dominated by men were also hiring more women than ever before.
According to Forbes, 13.8% of mining and logging jobs were currently held by women, and more women were employed in manufacturing and transportation than in years past as well.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the women’s labor force participation rate to hit a 33-year low in January 2021.
According to CNBC, more than 2.3 million women in the US have left the labor force since February 2020, compared to about 1.8 million men who have registered as unemployed. This places the women’s labor force participation rate at 57%, the lowest rate since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
However, the actual number of women who are currently unemployed may be much higher due to those who may have left the labor force but are not actively looking for work. Instead, many women may be staying home due to mass closures of schools and daycare facilities.
The data is undeniably dire, despite more jobs being added to the workforce in recent months. In January 2021, 275,000 women left the labor force, accounting for 80% of all unemployed workers over the age of 20 that month.
The situation is even worse for women of color, Insider’s Juliana Kaplan previously reported. According to the NWLC, 8.5% of Black women age 20 and over were unemployed in January 2021, compared to 8.4% in December 2020 and 4.9% in February 2020.
Adversely, the unemployment rate for white men age 20 and over was 5.5% in January 2021, compared to 5.8% in December 2020 and 2.7% in February 2020.