The Mass Exodus of Women From the Workplace
The staggering unemployment numbers that hit the U.S. economy during the pandemic was a common topic of conversation during 2020. What is often left out of that conversation is the mass exodus of women from the workplace. This mass exodus has caused some economists to term 2020 a "she-session". The National Women's Law Center ("NWLC") conducted an analysis of the monthly jobs reports issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and concluded that over 2 million women exited the workforce between January and December of 2020, including 564,000 black women, and 317,000 Latinas.1 Of the 9.6 million total net jobs lost since February of 2020, women accounted for 55 percent which equates to approximately 5.4 million jobs.2 In December of 2020, all 140,000 net jobs lost were jobs belonging to women.3
The overall unemployment rate for women began the year in January of 2020 at 3.2 percent and ended the year at 6.3 percent in December of 2020.4 Like many economic statistics, these unemployment rates are greater for women of color.5 The unemployment rate for white women began at 2.7 percent and ended at 5.7 percent.6 The unemployment rate for black women began at 5.5 percent and ended at 8.4 percent.7 For Latinas it began at 4.4 percent and ended at 9.1 percent and for Asian women it began at 3.0 percent and ended at 5.9 percent.8 Unemployment rates varied month by month but remained at devastating levels throughout 2020. The peak of 2020 unemployment rates occurred in April when it reached an overall unprecedented level of 14.8 percent, which is higher than at any time during the great depression.9 In April of 2020 the overall unemployment rate for women reached 15.5 percent.10 The unemployment rate for white women was at 15 percent, 16.4 percent for black women, 20.2 percent for Latinas, and 14.5 percent for Asian women.11
The pandemic has highlighted what we already know: the disproportionate amount of family and household responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of women piled on top of workforce expectations is suffocating and unsustainable. A 2020 study of women in the workplace by Lean In and McKinsey & Company revealed that 1 in 4 women are considering either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce all together.12 It has been estimated that the number of women participating in the workforce may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, twice as long as the unemployment recovery projections for men.13 Without swift and appropriate measures being taken, this will result in significant economic loss and will have detrimental effects on families where over 40 percent of mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinner of their household.
Now, more than ever, we must invest in women and adopt policies to aid in the advancement of women and the strengthening of families. During the past year we have been forced to admit that our childcare, caregiver, and paid leave policies, or lack thereof, must be replaced with policies that provide for real life applications and solutions. Undoubtedly one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic is that remote work and flexible schedule options are not only feasible, but in many cases can result in more productive work product. While remote work is not available for all workers, flexible schedules allow all family members to contribute more to the family unit relieving some of the burden and negative stigma that is traditionally placed on women trying to balance it all. Additionally, return to work programs must be adopted to allow women to return to the workforce in the same positions that were held when they exiting the workforce in 2020. Furthermore, employers must remove the need for women to justify a gap in their employment history when attempting to re-enter the workforce.
As women, we must demand a change in workplace culture. We can no longer tolerate the expectation of women to tend to all, or a majority, of the family and household responsibilities while also being expected to fully compete in the workforce with zero support or flexibility. Whether derived from workplace policies or legislation we much do better when it comes to childcare/caregiver options, equal pay, paid leave, support services, flexible work schedules, remote work options and other policies that allow us to maintain a sustainable workforce. If working women are valued at their true worth, these policies would be no-brainers. Diversity and inclusion cannot be achieved in the workforce without these policies being widely implemented.
3. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2020 Employment Situation News Release, issued January 8, 2021 at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_01082021.htm
9. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Rate Rises to Record High 14.7 Percent in April 2020, May 13, 2020 at https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/unemployment-rate-rises-to-record-high-14-point-7-percent-in-april-2020.htm
10. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2020 Employment Situation News Release, issued May 8, 2020 at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_05082020.htm
12. McKinsey & Company and Lean In, Women in the Workplace 2020, at https://womenintheworkplace.com/
13. McKinsey & Company and Oxford Economics, Achieving and inclusive U.S. Economic Recovery, February 3, 2021 at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/achieving-an-inclusive-us-economic-recovery