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Why millions of women have not returned to work in the pandemic

Regaining jobs has been slow for women, particularly minorities. Here’s the complicated reason why

Coleen Piteo, director of marketing at Yours Truly restaurant, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Coleen Piteo, director of marketing at Yours Truly restaurant, puts out a sign for hiring on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Tony Dejak, Associated Press

As the U.S. economy begins recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 2 million women have not returned to work full time. Current employment rates for women lag far behind pre-pandemic rates, according to NPR.

  • Job gains have lagged the most for minority women, including Black and Hispanic women, The New York Times reported.

Getting women back to work will take time and intentional investment to address the challenges women face in returning to work, Politico said.

How many women aren’t working?

Over 4 million women left the workforce between February and April 2020, Politico reported. Comparatively, only 3.7 million men left the workforce during the pandemic, The Washington Post said. Women’s labor participation fell to only 57% during the pandemic — the lowest rate since 1988.

  • Now, over 1.8 million women have not returned to work, NPR said.
  • About 741,000 fewer Black women are employed now than in February 2020, a 7% drop, according to The New York Times.
  • About 890,000 fewer Hispanic women are employed now than in February 2020, a 7.2% drop, The New York Times said.

Friday the Bureau of Labor Statistics released monthly job data for May, Politico said. Of the 559,000 jobs added in May, about 56% of the jobs went to women. This is down from April when 60% of the added jobs went to women.

  • At current rates, it will take more than a year for women’s employment levels to reach pre-pandemic numbers, according to Politico

Why have women not returned to work?

The gender gap in post-pandemic employment comes from three challenges women have faced and continue to face, The New York Times said.

  1. Child care systems collapsed during the pandemic. Women took on more family and child-care responsibilities than men, says The New York Times. Schools have not fully reopened and child care costs have risen, making it expensive or difficult for women to return to work, Politico said.
  2. Jobs have disappeared in retail, restaurants, travel and hospitality, The Washington Post said. Women were overrepresented in employment in these industries and all of these industries look different in the post-pandemic economy.
  3. Specifically minority women were more likely to work in face-to-face service jobs that disappeared quickly during the pandemic lockdowns, The New York Times said. Returning to these low-paying jobs is difficult due to the situation of the child care system.

Improving child care and reopening schools will remain crucial in helping women return to work, according to Politico.