Women’s Experience in the Labor Market: Pandemic Reflections

March 30, 2022
Sarah Miller
Women’s Experience in the Labor Market: Pandemic Reflections

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System.  

It’s the end of National Women’s History Month and in just a few weeks when the April 2022 Jobs Report is released, we’ll have two full years of labor data to reflect on women’s experiences in the labor market during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A lot has happened over these past two years – especially with respect to the labor market.  We have seen unprecedented rates of unemployment caused by pandemic precautions and resulting economic closures, Federal and State expansion of unemployment insurance, student loan forbearance, stimulus payments and child tax credits, and school closures or remote learning presenting labor market challenges for working parents.  

These economic shocks and stressors affected workers differently – especially women and even more so women of color.  In the beginning of the pandemic, women accounted for a higher proportion of jobs lost and experienced higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts (atypical for prior recessions where men have experienced higher unemployment rates), leading to a new term in our economic lexicon – the “She-cession”.  While women in general were hit harder by the initial economic shocks, women of color experienced even higher rates of unemployment.  In April of 2020 unemployment rates for Black women hovered at 15.8% and a staggering 19.8% for Hispanic women, significantly higher than the overall unemployment rate for women at 14.6% .  

As the pandemic has trended toward an endemic state, with widespread vaccination availability, lifted restrictions on businesses and schools shifting back to in-person learning we have seen the labor market respond in kind.  Just last month (February 2022) an astounding 678K jobs were added in the U.S. and unemployment dropped to 3.8% overall – far exceeding economists’ expectations of job growth.  Within this job growth, women accounted for more than half of these gains.  51.2% to be exactly.  However, women still have not recovered at the pace of men over the past two years.  From the February 2022 Jobs Report the economy is still at a net loss of 2.1M jobs since February 2020 with women having lost over 1.4M net jobs over the course of the pandemic to date.  Women represent more than 2/3 net loss of jobs (68.5%) .  

Black women, in particular, have experienced downward trends in the labor market, even during February 2022 when booming job growth occurred.  Black women were the only demographic group to experience both a rising unemployment rate (6.1% in February ’22 up from 5.8% in January ’22) and a slight decline in their labor force participation rate (61.6% in February ’22 down from 61.9% in January ’22) .  Overall, the labor market trends are positive but looking at how women and especially those of color are faring month over month will be critical to close equity gaps as much as possible.  

Ultimately, we know it’s not just the strength of a sector or the availability of a job which affects labor force participation – caring for children, especially young children, drastically contributed to women’s ability to work.   Initial labor market dropout rates in 2020 showed Black and Latina women dropping out at rates 3 times as high as White women.  This was a result of Latina women disproportionately holding jobs associated with pandemic disruptions or Black women being less likely than White women to be in jobs where remote work was an option .   Overlay these experiences in the labor market with the challenge the cost of healthcare presents – market rates largely unaffordable for most families – and the influence affordability of childcare has on parents’, particularly mothers’, decisions on whether to participate in the labor market  and you can begin to see how the aggregate employment numbers do not tell a comprehensive story – for women, and women of color.  

For those of us that work within the workforce system, directly with job seekers or in service and advocacy of helping workers advance in the labor market I hope the experience of women and women of color through the pandemic has offered a view into the realities of far too many working women and working mothers.  Let us not take for granted the childcare responsibilities that fall disproportionately onto women, let us be comprehensive when we’re supporting a working women in her career and consider her career aspirations so she can experience mobility and resilience in our current labor market conditions and can weather future economic shocks, let us value the strength women bring to their families and help them translate those skills to their job search.  

Happy National Women’s History Month.  As we continue to work towards equitable recovery from the pandemic, let’s work to uplift opportunities for the women of today to ensure the history of this time will accurately reflect their value and importance in the American labor market.

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The Employment Situation - April 2020, Bureau of Labor Statistics

National Women's Law Center; The Jobs Report Shows a Strong Month, But Black Women's Labor Force Participation Drops and Unemployment Rate Rises; March 2022

The Employment Situation - February 2022, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Minneapolis Fed; Women of Color and Women with Children Disproportionately Left the Labor Force During the COVID-19 Pandemic; February 2022

Federal Reserve System Special Publication: Childcare Affordability Affects Labor Market and Family Choices