Introduction and summary
The early months of the coronavirus pandemic raised fears of a reversal in women’s hard-won economic progress. Millions were pushed out of work due to the resulting recession; others were pulled from the labor force to attend to family needs as schools and child care centers closed their doors. Job losses were notable not just for their magnitude and speed, but also for their disproportionate impact on women’s employment. Over two months’ time, from February 2020 to April 2020, women’s employment fell by a staggering 13.4 million jobs, with women losing 1.5 million more jobs than men during that period.1 As the Center for American Progress detailed in a previous report, the pandemic-induced economic crisis harmed women the most,2 with women of color bearing an even greater burden due to their overrepresentation in low-income, front-line, and essential jobs.3
Now, two years into the pandemic and amidst a strong economic recovery under President Joe Biden, which has occurred faster than predicted,4 it is time to assess the state of women’s employment. Doing so will be critical to fully restoring and expanding the economic security of women in the United States. Even before the pandemic hit, women—especially those with lower incomes and women of color—faced unique economic risks and hardships. The pandemic only exacerbated these challenges, and as a result, these same groups of women have experienced the slowest recovery.5
The gender wage gap
Any discussion of women’s employment must be firmly rooted in an awareness of the continued, pervasive wage gap. In 2020, women who worked full time, year-round were paid just 83 cents for every dollar a man earned. 6
This report reviews trends in women’s recent labor market experiences and documents the effect the pandemic continues to have on women’s economic security. These trends reinforce the need for policies that address the long-standing structural disadvantages women face at work, including building a robust care infrastructure, guaranteeing fair pay and benefits, and creating access to high-quality jobs and career pathways, as well as making higher education more affordable. Such reforms will be vital to sustaining and furthering the economic recovery, particularly for women, in the months and years ahead.
The state of recovery in women’s employment
Under President Biden, thanks to policies such as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the U.S. job market and economy as a whole have recovered at a much faster pace than anticipated just one year ago.7 Women, along with their male counterparts, have inarguably benefitted from this recovery. At the same time—particularly among women with lower educational attainment and women of color, though these are certainly not the only groups of women who would benefit from reforms—much work remains to be done to not only fully recover from the pandemic but strengthen women’s employment and economic security in the long run.
Women’s impressive progress to date
The United States has made a great deal of progress in getting Americans back to work. Over the past year, employment has recovered at a brisk pace, with more than 7 million jobs added across the economy. Among women in particular, employment has built back at an impressive rate: As of February 2022, women’s employment had reached 98 percent of the pre-pandemic level.8
Furthermore, the start of the 2021-22 school year ushered in a marked improvement in mothers’ employment. Employment of women with minor children at home has recovered to 98.9 percent of pre-pandemic levels, approaching the near-full recovery of employment for men without children.9
Additionally, while it remains significantly higher than that of men,10 the share of women reporting difficulty paying bills is down significantly from December 2020, when close to 4 in 10 women overall and nearly half of women with children were struggling to do so.11 Temporary federal help, including paid leave, extended unemployment insurance, and direct aid to households and families—such as through the economic stimulus and expanded child tax credit payments—made a huge difference in reducing the incidence of economic hardship.
These successes, along with the growth in employment observed once schools reopened, demonstrate the importance of a robust care infrastructure to women’s overall economic security.
Still, even as men’s employment has fully recovered to its pre-pandemic level, women still face a troubling pandemic employment gap: Roughly 1.5 million fewer women are working today than in February 2020.12 Any discussion of how to fully restore—and, ultimately, improve—women’s employment in the United States must involve a close examination of the women falling into this gap.
Even as men’s employment has fully recovered to its pre-pandemic level, women still face a troubling pandemic employment gap.
Disparities in employment recovery by educational attainment
The most striking pattern of uneven recovery is by educational attainment.13 And while it is important to recognize the disparities in educational attainment that still exist among racial and ethnic groups, this pattern holds across the population. For women of all races and ethnicities, a college degree boosted the prospects of regaining employment. However, the converse is also true: Less educational attainment has been associated with a slower recovery of employment across the board.
In the early months of the pandemic, women with a high school diploma or less saw the bottom fall out of their employment prospects: More than 1 in 4 jobs disappeared in a matter of weeks.14 Employment losses for women with some college education were also dramatic, with more than 1 in 6 jobs lost in the first two months of the pandemic.15 Women with four-year college degrees, on the other hand, suffered the smallest hits to employment, and theirs was the fastest to recover.16
By February 2022, employment of college-educated women had grown to 4.1 percent above pre-pandemic levels (about 1.2 million more jobs). Unfortunately, for women with less education attainment, the climb back has been much slower and remains far from complete.17
In February 2022, employment among those with a high school education or less was 5.8 percent lower than it was before the pandemic (about 1 million fewer jobs). For women with some post-high school or college education, but not a four-year degree, employment was down by an even larger proportion—8.1 percent (about 1.4 million fewer jobs).18
Economic impact of educational attainment
Educational attainment is highly predictive of earnings, although a higher degree does not close wage disparities for women of color. These trends demonstrate that the lowest-earning women are the most likely to remain sidelined from the labor market. Employment for these women remains far off pre-pandemic levels, and policymakers must not lose sight of the uneven nature of the recovery in women’s employment to date. These are also the women who have the smallest financial cushion to fall back on in tough times.
The lowest-earning women are the most likely to remain sidelined from the labor market.
The likelihood of having difficulties paying regular expenses is highest for those women with the least educational attainment. A clear majority of women without high school diplomas—57 percent—reported such difficulties in January 2022. Roughly 40 percent of women with a high school diploma or some college reported difficulties covering bills during that same period.
Such high rates of economic hardship reflect not just employment challenges, but poor job quality—even when employment is obtained—such as a lack of access to benefits such as paid leave. The lowest-earning women have the least access to paid leave of any type, especially sick leave and family leave.19 Persistent wage gaps also plague women within education levels. For example, less than one-third of men with a high school diploma or some college experience hardships, compared with roughly 40 percent of women.20 This reflects the fact that women, and particularly women of color, make up a disproportionate number of the working poor—those whose earnings are so low that even when working full time, they and their families are left in poverty or near poverty.21
But it is important to recognize that, even among college-educated women—who are least likely to experience economic hardship and who have gained the most ground in employment during the recovery—close to 20 percent report difficulties paying regular expenses, compared with just 15 percent of similarly educated men.22 As the data on economic hardship overall suggest, educational attainment reduces—but does not close—the gender wage gap. Women, from those without a high school diploma to those who earned their bachelor’s degree, make approximately 80 percent of what similarly educated men do.23
Furthermore, the disproportionate impact student debt has on women—particularly for those who have not earned their degree—is not helping this state of affairs. Women hold two-thirds of the country’s student debt overall, with the wage gap creating additional barriers to repayment. Women also account for more than 75 percent of all attendees of for-profit schools,24 which result in both higher debt amounts and significantly lower graduation rates when compared with nonprofit schools.25
Such statistics demonstrate that, even after women’s employment fully recovers, much more must be done to put women on equal financial footing with their male counterparts.
Disparities in employment recovery by race and ethnicity
In past recessions, a “first fired, last hired” dynamic meant that people of color bore the brunt of job losses.26 This was also true of the pandemic-induced recession, as employment for women of color initially fell faster and has recovered more slowly than that of white women.27 Black women in particular have faced the steepest challenges in returning to work at their pre-pandemic levels, with employment down by 386,000 jobs. The pandemic employment gap for Black women is almost twice as severe as for women overall.28
These disparities reflect, in part, long-standing patterns of occupational segregation in the U.S. economy, whereby women—especially women of color—are clustered in a narrower range of jobs and industries than men. And women of color are overrepresented in the exact sectors where employment recovery continues to lag: education and health, leisure and hospitality, and state and local government.29
Economic impacts related to racial and ethnic disparities
Racial and ethnic disparities are also reflected in rates of economic hardship. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising given the deep wage gap for women of color. For example, while 16 percent of U.S. workers are women of color, they represent more than 20 percent of minimum-wage workers. Women of color are also less likely to have access to paid leave.30
Reflecting this, as well as long-standing patterns of economic disadvantage by race, Black women, Hispanic women, and women of other races or multiple races report the most difficulties paying regular expenses, despite Black and Hispanic women having higher rates of labor force participation than women overall.31 And it is important to note that nearly all groups of women report more difficulties in paying their expenses than their male counterparts.
Similar to the lessons learned from the data on education attainment, the fact is that higher levels of labor force participation have clearly not been enough to ensure that Black and Hispanic women benefit equitably from the economic recovery. This disparity in economic recovery rates only reinforces the need for long-term investments that will improve women’s employment and job quality overall.
There has been unquestionable progress made to address the U.S. public health crisis and the pandemic-induced recession in the United States. Businesses and schools have reopened; effective vaccines are available at no cost; and the majority of Americans have embraced this opportunity to protect their health and that of their families and communities. Employment has rebounded strongly and more quickly than expected, and economic output now exceeds the pre-pandemic level.32 But even as the recovery continues, it is clear that more will be needed to strengthen women’s employment in the long run.
In early 2021, CAP detailed a range of policy proposals that would advance women’s employment. The data presented in this brief reinforce the need for those policies.33 At a minimum, policymakers should act to improve the ability of women to take care of themselves and their families while working, get paid equally for their work, and ensure career training and higher education are more attainable and affordable while also strengthening working conditions within sectors that do not require a degree.
Meaningful action to achieve these goals includes:
- Establish high-quality, affordable child care and universal preschool.69
- Guarantee all workers access to permanent, comprehensive paid family and medical leave, and ensure employers provide all workers with earned paid sick leave.70
- Implement flexible workplace policies and fair scheduling requirements.77
- Close the gender wage gap by strengthening existing equal pay protections, combatting pay discrimination, and banning the use of salary history.73
- Invest in wages, benefits, and standards for critical, front-line jobs that disproportionately employ women, such as those in the child care, health care, and long-term care industries.34
- Ensure registered apprenticeships, workforce development programs and systems, and targeted hiring programs are designed to recruit, place, and retain women to reduce occupational segregation and promote women’s economic mobility.
- Make higher education more affordable and equitable by improving repayment options, such as income-driven repayment and public service loan forgiveness, and investing in Pell Grants, community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, other minority-serving institutions, and underresourced institutions.35
- Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and eliminate the tipped minimum wage and the subminimum wage for people with disabilities.
- Expand employment protections and benefits for nontraditional workers, including part-time workers, independent contractors, and temporary workers. Strengthen the progressive system of supports for working women and families to ensure basic needs are met, including a permanent, expanded, and refundable child tax credit; expansions of nutrition assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants, and Children program; and greater access to safe and affordable housing through tenant-based rental assistance, homeless assistance grants, and housing counselling.
- Strengthen and enforce protections against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, which are especially important to ensure women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities are treated equally and fairly in the workplace.
The experience of the pandemic-induced recession and recovery demonstrate that without purposeful action, economic disparities can and will simply reproduce themselves. The women being left behind in the employment recovery are the same who have borne the burden of structural inequities and disadvantages in the labor market even before the pandemic hit. Moreover, even among those who have been able to regain employment, large shares are still experiencing economic insecurity. The need for bold, progressive policy change to support women’s employment has never been more urgent. Restoring employment is an important component of the economic recovery, but it is insufficient on its own. Recovery requires bold, meaningful policy interventions such as those described in this report to ensure women can participate fully and fairly in America’s economy.
Beth Almeida is the principal at Cove Research and a nationally recognized expert on workforce policy issues.