Women are returning to the job market in droves, just when the U.S. needs them most
Deandrea Rahming was eager to go back to work when her youngest child started school, but after more than a decade of being out of the workforce, she wasn't certain employers would want her.
"I was very apprehensive," Rahming says. "With a woman, it's always, 'Do you have kids? Do you have daycare? Are you reliable?'"
When Rahming began looking for jobs in the wake of the pandemic, though, she found desperate employers who were eager to hire.
The extra income from the jobs she landed as a claims adjuster, and later an administrative assistant, were a welcome boost for her family's budget. But Rahming says the satisfaction that came from working was bigger than just a paycheck.
"I come from a very long line of modern women," Rahming says. "So going back and working and being able to fulfill that accomplishment, like, 'OK, Yeah. I can do this. I still can run with the best of them.'"
Women like Rahming are helping to keep the economy running, as well. With employers adding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month, and unemployment near a half-century low, the U.S. needs more people to come off the sidelines to keep the economy growing.
"Where are the workers going to come from?" asks Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan. "What we're seeing is they are showing up month after month to take the jobs, and in particular, it's women showing up to take the jobs."
A major boost to the economy
In June, the share of working-age women between 25 and 54 who are working or looking for work hit 77.8% — an all-time high. Among African American women in that age range, more than 80% are in the workforce.
That's a big turnaround from the early days of the pandemic, when millions of women lost jobs as restaurants and other in-person businesses were shuttered, and many more dropped out of the job market to look after children or ailing family members.
Some worried the ranks of working women would be depressed for years. But women's participation in the workforce has actually rebounded from the pandemic more quickly than men's has.
Stevenson sees that as evidence that women are increasingly determined to play a major role in the economy. Just before the pandemic, women briefly outnumbered men on U.S. payrolls.
"This generation of women didn't just have a foot in the door. They had their whole body through," Stevenson says. "And even when they got pushed out, it's that long work experience, the long resumes, that helped them quickly return."
"Take a chance on more moms"
Stevenson remembers hearing from one working mom, who reluctantly quit working early in the pandemic, but took comfort in something Stevenson said on the radio.
"She didn't want to quit her job, but her kids didn't have in-person school. She couldn't think of any other solution, and she was driving home from having given her notice, bawling her eyes out, thinking I can't believe I've done this," Stevenson says. "And she said, 'you were on the radio, and you said when the pandemic's over, they'll go back to work.' And she said, 'I clung to those words for the whole year.'"
Stevenson's forecast has now come true.
Sudarshana Sharma spent the first year of the pandemic shepherding two young sons through at-home schooling — a process she describes as "suffocating."
She was eager to return to work but worried her skills as a software engineer were rusty after six years as a stay-at-home mom. Luckily, she landed a "returnship" position as an engineer at Grubhub. The six-month temporary position evolved into a permanent job.
Sharma, whose sons are eight and five, says working moms have a lot to offer.
"I think you should take a chance on more moms," Sharma says with a chuckle. "We have time-management skills. And multi-tasking."
Why employers are being more flexible
Sharma, who lives in California, is grateful that she's still able to work remotely. That allows her to be home in the afternoon when her older son, who has special needs, leaves school.
For working parents, there's nothing new about that kind of juggling act. But COVID made it more visible.
"The silver lining of the pandemic is that everyone started to understand the ways that caregiving and career intersect," says Christine Winston, who heads an organization called Path Forward that helps women return to the workforce. "Because everybody was at home with their five-year-old and their eight-year-old, doing school on Zoom."
That experience, coupled with today's super tight job market, may have left employers more willing to accommodate workers who need extra flexibility. Winston says she used to have to persuade employers to give women who'd been out of the workforce a chance. Now, employers come to her, searching for untapped labor.
"A lot more employers became aware that there was this huge pool of talent on the sidelines," Winston says.
Nonetheless, challenges remain
Of course, many of the the problems that sidelined women before the pandemic have not gone away. There are fewer child care workers today than there were before COVID-19 struck. And that shortage could grow worse when temporary federal subsidies expire this fall. Paid parental leave is also less common in the U.S. than in many other industrialized countries.
Still, economist Stevenson says employers have learned that offering workers more flexibility is not as costly as they might have thought.
"Workers have had a lot of bargaining power, not just for higher wages but to say, 'You know, I can't come in five days a week.' Or 'I've got to be able to pick my kids up from school and get them home, and then I can go back to working remotely," she says. "People learned to work around the child-care demands in the last few years. And that's actually been really helpful.
That could change if the job market softens and bosses become less willing to make allowances. But so long as the economy keeps adding jobs, employers will be on the lookout for more working women to help fill them.
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