Women in the Workforce: From a “She-Cession” to a “She-Covery”

The COVID-19 Pandemic Recession differed from other post-World War II recessions, especially regarding who was most impacted. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for men rose more than women, yet this was the reverse during the COVID Recession with the unemployment rate for women being over two percentage points higher than that for men in April 2020. This is primarily because women are disproportionately represented in occupations and industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic: hospitality, office and administrative support, educational instruction, and others. One keynote address on July 16 at the C2ER/LMI Institute Annual Conference made by Dr. Erica Groshen, Dr. Laleah Fernandez, and Sondra Palivoda highlighted how the COVID Recession exacerbated gender disparities in the workforce and the importance of addressing them.

As more and more women entered the workforce over the past century, the employment-to-population ratio for women increased, but the upward trend began to flatten in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The same trend is observed when looking at women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s earnings from 1979 to present. Dr Erica Groshen, a Senior Economics Advisor at Cornell University, research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, and former Commissioner of Labor Statistics and head of the of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, notes how women now have higher educational attainment than men. So, why does a gap remain?

Each keynote speaker addressed the unique barriers that women face when remaining in or returning to the workforce, such as being responsible for childcare and caring for elderly parents. Dr. Fernandez, Associate Director for the Research and Analytics for the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives within the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget, presented research about women in the Michigan workforce. Her research showed how the decline in labor force participation among women in Michigan is more pronounced in women over the age of 45 and women with children ages 5 to 17, illustrating that access to childcare is critical for women’s labor force participation recovery.

Policies meant to encourage women to enter and remain or return to the workforce should, therefore, address these unique barriers. Childcare tax credits, universal, pre-kindergarten, and long-term care insurance and subsidies were all discussed as potential solutions. Sondra Palivoda, Manager of Research at Team NEO in Ohio, stressed the need to increase female visibility in those jobs where women are not concentrated, such as manufacturing and IT, to encourage young women to choose career paths in those fields. Another answer may be found in the way COVID changed the way we work; remote work and less travel affords women more flexibility and control over their work-life balance, and the labor shortage has forced employers to alter their hiring and promotional patterns.

An aging population combined with a decline in birth rates means that less people are available to work. Therefore, women are an especially crucial component of the labor force, so addressing these barriers to recovery for women in the workforce is important to the economy. To summarize Dr. Groshen, more women in the workforce means more productivity and more productivity means more opportunities and greater prosperity for future generations.