Three years ago, women were leaving the workforce in record numbers. Today, they're leading the post-pandemic job market recovery.
New data points to the resilience of women, the efficacy of inclusive workplace policies, and the gaps that remain for underrepresented women in the workforce. Why is this important? Reviewing how the job market has evolved over recent years can serve as a guide to creating inclusive workplaces, offering insights on potential policy solutions and workplace standards that can contribute to flourishing for all employees.
In this article, we'll offer a quick overview of the "she-cession," outline the data on women at the forefront of job market recovery, and underscore some of the inequities that remain for women in the workforce.
What is the "she-cession"?
A phrase coined by the President and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research C. Nicole Mason, she-cession refers to the job losses experienced by women during the COVID-19 pandemic; for instance, women bore the brunt of the 20 million jobs lost in April 2020. A 2021 report from the International Monetary Fund further confirmed the reality of the she-cession, saying that "COVID-19 crisis employment losses have been larger for women than for men."
Women endured the greatest job losses for manifold reasons, including limited access to childcare, disproportionate caregiving responsibilities, and educational discrepancies. Though women have largely bounced back from these losses, many of the factors contributing to the she-cession in the first place still remain. Read on to learn more.
How women are largely leading the job market recovery
New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women's employment has now recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Currently, the number of women of prime working age—between ages 25 and 54— in the labor force is at 77 percent, up one percentage point from 2019 and "setting a new high for the share of women either working or looking for work," reports the Center for American Progress. By contrast, men of prime working age are still below pre-pandemic labor force participation levels.
Some factors contributing to women rejoining the workforce include the reopening of schools, availability of vaccines, and a robust job market.
Inequities still persist
Thankfully, the pandemic's negative effects on the labor force have largely rebounded. But that doesn't mean we've reached equity in the workplace or in the workforce. Underrepresented workers, and women in particular, still face more obstacles to career advancement compared to their male counterparts. Ahead, we'll take a look at some of the challenges women face in the workplace.
The wage gap remains
The gender wage gap has barely changed for the past 20 years, according to Pew Research Center. In 2023, the average woman earned 77 cents for each dollar earned by her white male counterparts, 19th News reports. And the gender wage gap only becomes wider when you break down the demographic data. Native American women experience the largest gender wage gap, earning 51 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. Latina women earn 54 cents, Black women earn 64 cents, and white women earn 73 cents on the dollar, according to data from the National Partnership for Women and Families. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women earn the most compared to other groups of women, yet still below men's earnings, at 80 cents on the dollar.
Occupational segregation, defined by the Center for American Progress (CAP) as "the clustering of women in just a few occupations," is an obstacle for women's labor force recovery, particularly for women who do not hold a degree. "Even though women have increased their presence in higher-paying jobs traditionally dominated by men, such as professional and managerial positions, women as a whole continue to be overrepresented in lower-paying occupations relative to their share of the workforce," Pew Research Center reports. According to CAP, prior to the pandemic, six in 10 women were employed in just three fields: education and health; hospitality and leisure; and retail and wholesale trade. These industries were also some of the hardest hit during the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn.
Occupational segregation is created in part, and made worse by, a lack of diversity within recruitment efforts and candidate pools and/or pipelines, which often leaves behind high caliber candidates from different backgrounds.
Caregiving disparities and the motherhood penalty
The U.S. Department of Labor found that mothers' employment has "recovered more slowly than fathers'." Both men and women feel pressure to support their families financially, Pew Research found, but women were more likely "to say they feel a great deal of pressure to focus on responsibilities at home."
Caregiving disparities that negatively impact a woman's career trajectory can sometimes fall under "the motherhood penalty." There's a direct connection between women becoming mothers and a drop in their labor force participation and earnings, according to the peer-reviewed journal Sociology Compass. Policymakers and business leaders can mitigate these impacts by offering flexible work arrangements, allotting time for caregiving leave, and childcare solutions (by way of vouchers, benefits, or onsite daycare).
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