Women's employment is moving in the right direction, but it hasn't turned a corner yet
- Women saw some promising signs in the May jobs report.
- But women continue to feel a disproportionate impact of job and economic losses.
- The coming months will also bring the end of federal unemployment benefits and eviction moratoriums.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Throughout the pandemic, the story of unemployment has been a roller coaster, taking myriad twists and turns. March’s jobs report brought new highs, and April brought disappointing lows. May’s jobs report falls somewhere in between, coming in below expectations but still showing acceleration as unemployment dipped.
One group, however, has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic’s economic devastation: Women. In April, women’s unemployment dropped because more women were leaving the labor force completely. But May’s jobs report signaled a slightly better story.
“It was just a solid month, and we need that,” Jasmine Tucker, the director of research at the National Women’s Law Center, told Insider. “We need just some solid months of no bad news.”
Even so, Tucker said it will take 13 months for women’s employment to reach pre-pandemic levels — and that’s not even accounting for the gains women would have seen over the past 16 months in a COVID-free world.
Unemployment ticked down for both men and women, but is still higher than before the pandemic
Unemployment rates for both men and women age 20 and over dropped by 0.2 percentage points in May. The following chart shows how the unemployment rate has changed during the pandemic for men and women:
The unemployment rate for men ages 20 and over was 5.9% in May 2021, higher than the 5.4% rate for women. Both rates are still higher than before the pandemic.
NWLC notes in its analysis that the unemployment rate further varies by race and ethnicity. The unemployment rate for Black women continues to be at an elevated 8.2%, well above the overall rate of 5.8%.
Broadly, 7.9 million workers said that they were not able to work because their work closed or lost business due to the pandemic. A recent report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that Black and Hispanic workers were less likely to be able to telework compared to white peers.
More women returned to the labor force than men, reversing the situation in April
More women did join the labor force, meaning they were either working or actively looking for work, last month. However, the number of women who have been looking for work for over a year also trended up, according to Tucker. The following chart shows the change in labor force participation for men and women over the last couple of months:
Based on data for men and women age 20 and over, a net total of 204,000 women returned to the labor force in May after 165,000 left the labor force in April. For men, 151,000 left the labor force in May after 355,000 men returned to the labor force in April.
There were 1.79 million less women in the labor force in May than there were in February 2020, or a decline of 2.4% from February 2020 to May 2021. In comparison, there were about 1.75 million less men in the labor force in May than there were in February 2020, or a percent decline of 2.1%.
The labor force participation rate for women increased last month. The following chart shows the labor force participation rate by gender since February 2020:
The participation rate for men ages 20 and over dropped by 0.2 percentage points from 69.8% in May, while the participation rate for women ages 20 and over ticked up by 0.2 percentage points from 57.2%. Despite the rise in women’s participation, the rate is still 1.8 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level, compared to a 2.0 point decline for men.
Childcare and household expenses are still a challenge
Childcare could also continue to be an issue, especially as children remain unvaccinated and some families have mixed vaccination statuses. The childcare industry was pummeled by the pandemic, meaning it may be harder to come about for parents who wish to return to work.
“If you’ve been out of work for so long, taking the first job that you can get might not be an option if it doesn’t cover the childcare costs that you’re going to incur from taking that job,” Tucker said.
There’s also a fiscal cliff looming for many Americans, both unemployed and not. Things like student loan, rent, and mortgage payments have been paused throughout the pandemic for many. But many of those bills will come due in the coming months; a recent Morning Consult analysis found that, of those surveyed who had outstanding rent and mortgage payments, 60.4% expected to start repaying them in May, June, or July.
And federal unemployment benefits will come to an end in September, leaving many newly eligible workers — and those who had drawn employment beyond their states’ allotment — with no unemployment insurance at all. Tucker said that that the current state of unemployment means it’s not the time to be talking about ending moratoriums or unemployment insurance.
“This is the moment where we can reimagine the systems and structures that are in place in our world here that would make it so that people can thrive and not just get by,” she said. “We can extend these moratoriums as long as we want. We can extend them forever. We have options and people just won’t consider them.”
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