Women Are Leaving the Labor Force in Record Numbers


Nov 24, 2020

Woman working from home with young son, photo by ArtMarie/Getty Images

Photo by ArtMarie/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Dallas Morning News on November 22, 2020.

Claudia Goldin, former head of the American Economic Association, called the period beginning in the mid-1970s the quiet revolution (PDF) in women's labor. The ranks of female workers had grown steadily after World War II, but what changed drastically starting in the '70s, according to Goldin, wasn't the raw numbers, but mindset. Women made employment decisions for themselves, they pursued careers, and their work became part of their identity.

The COVID-19 pandemic, by any measure, has been a blow to that identity. Piled atop challenges such as pay disparities and expensive childcare is an economic downturn that hit women workers measurably harder than men—the so-called “she-cession.” One particularly sobering number: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than there were in October 2019.

Whenever the economy contracts people lose jobs and some workers, discouraged by the difficult labor market, sit it out for a while. (A person who is unemployed is still counted in the labor force until that person stops actively looking for work.)

But women aren't sitting it out so much as being shoved out by disproportionate job loss, shuttered schools, lack of childcare, pay disparities and lack of public policy to support working women. The unfinished policy work of the quiet revolution could not only leave women on the career sidelines for years, it could be a drag on economic recovery.

Figure 1: Men's and Women's Labor Force Participation Rates, Age 16 and Older, 1950–2019

Year Women Men
1948 32.7 86.6
1949 33.1 86.4
1950 33.9 86.4
1951 34.6 86.5
1952 34.7 86.3
1953 34.4 86.0
1954 34.6 85.5
1955 35.7 85.4
1956 36.9 85.5
1957 36.9 84.8
1958 37.1 84.2
1959 37.1 83.7
1960 37.7 83.3
1961 38.1 82.9
1962 37.9 82.0
1963 38.3 81.4
1964 38.7 81.0
1965 39.3 80.7
1966 40.3 80.4
1967 41.1 80.4
1968 41.6 80.1
1969 42.7 79.8
1970 43.3 79.7
1971 43.4 79.1
1972 43.9 78.9
1973 44.7 78.8
1974 45.7 78.7
1975 46.3 77.9
1976 47.3 77.5
1977 48.4 77.7
1978 50.0 77.9
1979 50.9 77.8
1980 51.5 77.4
1981 52.1 77.0
1982 52.6 76.6
1983 52.9 76.4
1984 53.6 76.4
1985 54.5 76.3
1986 55.3 76.3
1987 56.0 76.2
1988 56.6 76.2
1989 57.4 76.4
1990 57.5 76.4
1991 57.4 75.8
1992 57.8 75.8
1993 57.9 75.4
1994 58.8 75.1
1995 58.9 75.0
1996 59.3 74.9
1997 59.8 75.0
1998 59.8 74.9
1999 60.0 74.7
2000 59.9 74.8
2001 59.8 74.4
2002 59.6 74.1
2003 59.5 73.5
2004 59.2 73.3
2005 59.3 73.3
2006 59.4 73.5
2007 59.3 73.2
2008 59.5 73.0
2009 59.2 72.0
2010 58.6 71.2
2011 58.1 70.5
2012 57.7 70.2
2013 57.2 69.7
2014 57.0 69.2
2015 56.7 69.1
2016 56.8 69.2
2017 57.0 69.1
2018 57.1 69.1
2019 57.4 69.2

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Happened to the Labor Force in 2020

In January, before COVID-19 cases were detected in the United States, there were 30.1 million male and 29.1 million female workers age 18 to 55 who had at least one child in their households. (These are not necessarily their children, but children who live with them.) In the month of April, when the U.S. economy shed 22.5 million jobs, labor force participation cratered for both genders, but most of those losses were recovered over the summer.

There were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than there were in October 2019.

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Then in August and September, the trend lines of workers with children started to diverge from workers without children. Men without children in their households ended the summer with a labor force participation rate just about 1 point below where they started the year. Women without children and men with children ended September down less than 2 points. For women with children, there was a steep and sustained drop in August and September—the months when school began—and they are down 3.2 percentage points since January.

Keep in mind, this is not showing people who have been laid off. This drop reflects only those who have stopped working or even looking for work. Women with children may hold slightly different types of jobs than those without, but probably not to a degree that explains this big gap.

Figure 2: 2020 Change in Labor Force Participation of Women and Men 18–55

year month Men with Children Women with Children Men without Children Women without Children 
2020 January 88% 72% 82% 78%
2020 February 88% 71% 82% 78%
2020 March 87% 70% 82% 77%
2020 April 84% 67% 78% 73%
2020 May 86% 68% 79% 74%
2020 June 87% 70% 80% 76%
2020 July 87% 70% 81% 76%
2020 August 87% 69% 81% 76%
2020 September 86% 68% 81% 76%

The burden of caregiving, as many parents will tell you, also varies with the number of children and their ages. Are women with more children, or younger children, leaving the workforce in greater numbers? Between January and September, the largest net decline was among women with two children, down 3.8 points, and among women whose oldest child is 2 to 6 years old, down 5.6 points.

Some aspects of these changes align with what many sense to be true, that women whose children are at a more dependent age, for example, have had to drop out of the labor force to take care of them. Other findings don't confirm such intuition.

Figure 3: Change in Labor Force Participation Rates of Men and Women 18–55, January–September 2020, by Number of Children

sex No children 1 Child 2 Children 3+ Children
Men -1.12 -1.93 -1.39 -2.35
Women -1.72 -3.26 -3.82 -1.95

For instance, the decline in labor force participation is smaller for women with three or more children. Could it be that working with more children indicates a stronger commitment to work, a greater need for income (more mouths to feed), or that with three children, parents are more inclined to send them to in-person school and care? Or, notice that women with a child younger than 2 had higher labor force participation in September than in January. Could it be that working from home makes the return from maternity leave less difficult?

Regardless, if caregiving demands are pushing millions of women out of the workforce, this slide might not be over. COVID-19 cases are surging again. Some schools may have reopened, but before a vaccine and population inoculation, they could close again. It could take years for declines of this scale to be erased. Even when women's labor force participation was growing at its fastest clip, it rarely increased more than a percentage point a year.

Figure 4: Change in Labor Force Participation Rates of Men and Women 18–55 Who Have Children in the Household, January–September 2020, by Age of Oldest Child

sex 0-1 years old 2-6 years old 7-12 years old 13-17 years old
Men -4.24 -1.26 -1.77 -1.57
Women 1.37 -5.57 -2.65 -3.14

Still at Work, but Stressed Out

For women who kept working throughout 2020, the picture looks no rosier. A Catalyst survey of adults ages 20 to 65 working in large companies (500 or more employees) found that 2 of every 5 mothers say they must hide their caregiving struggles from colleagues. A separate survey found that women with children are much more likely to report that working from home has hurt their productivity and affected their career. Although their sample is not representative of all women workers, a much larger survey from McKinsey (PDF) found that 1 in 4 women was considering taking a leave of absence, reducing hours, moving to part time, or switching to a less-demanding job.

Afraid to take time off, unable to take time off, working less, being promoted less—all of these will likely contribute to the predicted 5-point widening (PDF) in the gender earnings gap that will result from the recession. Women started the year earning 18 percent less than men, on average.

The Limits to Quiet Change

Goldin dubbed women's change in self-identity—from having a job for a while to having a career—a quiet revolution. A more fitting modifier might have been “unsupported.” That revolution was not ushered in by, nor did it usher in, public or corporate policies to support working women. Instead, women continue to be expected to improve their own situation.

For example, a well-documented reason for the gender pay gap is that women are much less likely (PDF) than men to negotiate their starting salary or ask for raises, citing that they feel uncomfortable and put on the spot. The solution? Women are advised to improve their negotiation skills and be more aggressive. But of course, not too aggressive, because women are also more likely than men to get penalized for negotiating (PDF).

Or, several studies note that mothers and fathers on average, even when both have full-time jobs, don't do an equal amount of housework or childcare. When women's so-called “second shift” was first measured in 1989, it was estimated women did 15 hours more per week than men; more recent estimates peg the average closer to five hours per week. The solution? Women are advised to make their husbands do more. Or they should lower their standards of what is sufficient housework, like giving up on ironing sheets.

By most measures, 2020 will end as a low point in women's labor market progress and one that makes starkly clear the limits of a quiet revolution. Women embracing their identity as workers will not make childcare less expensive. Women choosing careers they want will not stop sexual harassment. Women graduating from college at higher rates than men won't close the gender wage gap.

A Supported Revolution?

What might accomplish these things? If we've reached the limit of what the quiet revolution could do, what would a supported one look like?

Strengthening or expanding existing laws is a start. For instance, federal equal opportunity laws, in addition to forbidding discrimination in hiring, pay and promotion, could prohibit employers from asking about prior salary and wages, as nearly two dozen states have done. This has been shown to decrease the gender earnings gap.

Federal labor laws, in addition to setting a 40-hour work week and minimum wage, could require minimum shift scheduling notices. This is associated with longer job tenure for mothers. Further, the federal government could follow the lead of 10 states (PDF) and mandate a minimum number of sick days for all workers, part-time or full-time.

But truly transformational change rests on supporting caregivers. Working while rearing children from age 0 to 18 is difficult. The current solution is to tell households to fix how they split up that burden (and in effect, tell couples what their marriage should look like). But the government has the option to lighten the load.

After making it through a pandemic and recession that that stymied them, can working women get the investment they have long been forced to do without?

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Let's start at age zero: employer-paid leave for new parents is currently available to just 17 percent of private sector workers. But a federal social insurance program for family leave would be portable across employers and states, and available to all wage earners. Similar to Social Security, workers who paid into such a program via taxes would receive benefits in qualifying circumstances, such as the birth of a child or the illness of a spouse, parent or child. Nine states (PDF) have set up smaller programs of this nature.

Likewise, free childcare (like a day care built next door to the public library or elementary school) for infants and toddlers, public preschool for ages 3 and 4, and school days that align with the workday (PDF) all have been shown to increase women's labor force participation.

The 30-year-old single man who has no children and never intends to has something to gain from such policies, too. When labor force participation increases, the economy grows. That's because 70 percent of the U.S. economy is based on household spending. When families lose an earner—through job loss or because one person decides to stay home—they are also decreasing their income. That may work best for their family, but it still shrinks the economy relative to what it could be.

Encouraging women to work is standard economic policy. The World Bank (PDF) has long advised low- and middle-income countries to invest in women through policies such as these to accelerate economic development; the International Monetary Fund has said (PDF) that investing in women is a recipe to grow the economy. The Council on Foreign Relations estimated that closing the gender employment and earnings gap could add $2.7 trillion to gross domestic product in the U.S. by 2025.

Maybe this sounds radical: stricter labor laws, universal paid family leave, free childcare, public preschool, longer schools days. But for nearly all Americans, 2020 has already been radical. Historic job loss and recovery, a seemingly unending wave of shuttered business, lines at food banks that extend for miles, closed schools and remote learning. The world won't look the same in 2021.

After making it through a pandemic and recession that that stymied them, can working women get the investment they have long been forced to do without? Only if the next revolution is much louder. But if it succeeds, we will all be better off.

Kathryn A. Edwards is an economist with the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.