Outside the Box: With progress on good jobs for women stalling, it’s time for Congress to act

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We may be entering another catastrophic period for women’s employment.

A year ago, as many children began logging onto a year of virtual school, more than 865,000 women left the labor market in a single month. Last September’s cataclysmic month for women’s employment came on the heels of months in which women lost more jobs than men—dating back to the onset of the pandemic. By the start of October, women had lost more than a generation of employment gains and economists and pundits had announced that the country was experiencing what became known as a “she-cession.”

While the economy has been steadily adding jobs for all of 2021, we don’t know what the start of another uncertain school year and ongoing delta surge will mean for women’s employment, but there are already signs that women are struggling to rejoin the labor market despite wanting to.   

Terrible jobs report in August

An overwhelming majority (88%) of August’s job gains went to men, with women’s employment gains slowing considerably. The latest jobs report comes at a time where women’s employment continues to be in crisis due to the economic consequences of the pandemic: there are 1.7 million fewer women in the labor force, compared to 1.3 million fewer men. For too many women a true economic recovery will remain elusive without Congress passing the Build Back Better agenda.

But we also know that this pandemic merely exacerbated existing gender inequalities in the labor market—there has never been a time in America’s history when women and men were treated equitably in employment opportunities. Women, particularly mothers and women of color, have always been met with workplace obstacles fueled in part by persistent gender, racial and ethnic biases and stereotypes and the lack of policies to help navigate conflicting work and family demands. 

 Without Congress intentionally centering the needs of women, particularly mothers and women of color, in the Build Back Better agenda, we are at risk of losing decades of hard-fought improvements in women’s economic security, as well as entrenching the steps backward caused by the pandemic.  

 A time when women’s labor-market gains remain below pre-pandemic levels and could be beginning to slow, is not the time for Congress to put the brakes on policies that would foster a full, inclusive and equitable recovery. Understanding the state of women’s employment—and more important the policies needed to strengthen women’s job prospects and working conditions—must be a priority for policy makers if we are to have a real recovery that helps women and their families become economically secure.

Improving quality of jobs

Helping women return to work is crucial, but it is equally important to improve the jobs that they will be returning to. Black women, for example, have consistently had among the highest labor-force participation rates for women—a fact that has continued to be true throughout the pandemic—yet they are disproportionately more likely to work in lower-paying jobs that lack protections to address their care needs.

The latest jobs report must serve as a reminder that we cannot have a real recovery without addressing the specific barriers undermining the employment and retention of women in quality jobs that provide economic stability. 

This pandemic showcased the predictable consequences of women’s concentration in historically undervalued, underpaid, and essential occupations, such as hospitality and child care; and the unequal share of caregiving responsibilities borne by women, especially mothers, without adequate care infrastructure to support their families’ needs. Policies that enable workers to keep their jobs and take time off for care giving, particularly when emergencies arise, are essential to creating equitable workplaces and strengthening women’s labor force attachment. 

This month, more than 100 economists called on Congress to pass historic investments in child care and early learning to facilitate maternal labor-force participation. They cite that while child-care costs have been rising, women’s labor-force participation has stagnated, costing the U.S. economy $57 billion a year.

The opportunity to pass historic investments in care infrastructure comes at a time when women’s labor-force-participation rate is equivalent to rates seen more than 30 years ago. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1.7 million women have been forced out of the labor force due to decades of underinvestment in care givers and essential workers and a lack of work-family policies essential to women’s employment. There continue to be nearly 3 million fewer women employed than before the recession and 1.2 million more women formally classified as unemployed.

Dropping out of labor force

In August, women’s labor-force participation declined for the first time since April this year, with 177,000 White, 28,000 Asian and 43,000 Hispanic women leaving the labor force (notably, before school starts in many areas of the country). Women of color, particularly Black and Hispanic women, continue to bear the brunt of job losses. While Black women were the only demographic of women who were employed at a higher rate than the preceding month in August, 25% of them did not find work despite wanting to. This continues to be disappointing but not surprising—Black women account for 26% of the additional unemployed since the start of the pandemic, despite accounting for 14% of the overall female labor force. Meanwhile, Hispanic women have experienced the largest decline in labor-force participation—among women and men—with a 3.8 percentage point fall since February 2020. 

Women are the majority of employees in occupations such as child care, home care, and preschool teaching; these occupations (long undervalued and underpaid) would see higher wages and better quality jobs with significant federal investments. Black and Hispanic women would benefit most from these changes as they participate in care work at higher rates than their overall participation in the labor market. Meanwhile, everyone would benefit from more affordable, dependable care for their children and family members. 

The Build Back Better agenda—particularly paid family and medical leave, an improved child-care system and a fully refundable child tax credit—offers Congress a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce persistent gender and racial inequality. The ongoing impacts of the delta variant on employment in industries traditionally held by women, as well as the beginning of an uncertain school year, could likely mean that the gendered nature of August jobs data persists. Many women cannot return to work without these policies, which puts the economic security of millions of women and their families at risk. The time to act is now. 

Rose Khattar is the associate director of rapid response and analysis with the Economic Policy Program at the Center for American Progress. 

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