The Labor Force Is Still Missing 1.8 Million Women. Here's Why

by Maurie Backman | Updated July 25, 2021 - First published on June 12, 2021

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A worried person sitting with their chin resting on their hand and staring off into the distance.

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While the jobless rate has declined, women are having a harder time reentering the workforce.

It's no secret that millions of Americans lost their jobs in the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and some have been slower than others to get back into the labor force. But women are having an especially hard time getting back in the game, and it's hurting them both professionally and financially.

Women are struggling to work

It's estimated that there are 1.8 million fewer women in the labor force now compared to before the pandemic. And at a time when many states are facing labor shortages -- so much so that they're pulling the plug on boosted unemployment benefits in an effort to get the jobless back to work -- that's truly unfortunate.

So why aren't women opting back in, or managing to get back in? There are a couple of key factors at play.

First, there are certain industries where women held a large percentage of jobs prior to the pandemic, like restaurants and retail. These industries were notably hard-hit when coronavirus restrictions came crashing down, and many women lost their jobs when stores shuttered and restaurants were forced to stop or severely limit indoor dining.

At this point, a lot of those jobs are coming back. But because the wages they pay are so low, it doesn't make financial sense for a lot of women to take those jobs.

Restaurants, for example, are notorious for underpaying workers, and the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn't budged since 2009. Meanwhile, the American Rescue Plan, which put $1,400 stimulus checks into millions of people's bank accounts, boosted unemployment by $300 a week through the beginning of September. While 25 states are ending that boost early (and more may join that list), others are keeping it in place. And as long as some female employees are earning more money on unemployment than they could at a job, it makes sense for them not to go back.

There's also childcare to consider. Many schools have yet to reopen for full-time learning in person. Plus, women are statistically likely to earn less money than men, so it stands to reason that if someone has to opt out of the labor force to look after a child, it would be women, not men.

Now, one thing that may help get more women back to a job is the remote work trend. That flexibility could help lower-earning women save money on childcare and attain a more manageable work-life balance. But that only applies to industries where working from home is possible, and since many women work in fields that require them to show up to a physical place of work, that flexibility goes out the window.

All told, women may increasingly ease their way back into the workforce once boosted unemployment benefits expire and schools open in full. But even so, they might still face the same challenges they're grappling with today -- limited earnings and wages that fail to match what their equally qualified male counterparts are bringing home.

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