Feb 10, 2021 - Economy

A million American mothers are out of work

Illustration of a baby monitor on a busy work desk

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Nearly a million American mothers have left the workforce during the pandemic — and many of them might not return.

Why it matters: We've dialed the clock back decades in terms of women's workplace progress.

The backstory: Women in the U.S. hit a milestone in February 2020 when, for the first time in history, they held the majority of non-farm payroll jobs, outnumbering men in the workforce.

  • One year later, women's labor force participation is at a 33-year low.
  • Putting mothers — many of whom were in the heights of their careers before the pandemic — back to work is vital to the health of the U.S. economy, experts say.

The big picture: The chasm between women's and men's unemployment numbers is driven by the difference between the pandemic experiences of working mothers and fathers, says Jed Kolko, chief economist at the jobs site Indeed.

Take a look at how the prime-age employment to population ratio — or the share of people aged 25–54 who are employed — has changed for different groups of workers.

  • The share of women aged 25–54 without kids who are employed has dropped 4.8 percentage points over the course of the pandemic. The drop is the same for men of that age without kids.
  • But when looking at men and women of prime age with kids, the drops are 3.1 points and 5.7 points, respectively. Working mothers have fared worse than any other group.

"Distance learning and child care have been huge burdens on parents — especially mothers — who have been forced to balance employment and caregiving," Kolko says.

There will be long tail effects that hurt working women and mothers long after the pandemic is over.

  • Single mothers in low-wage jobs that have been forced to quit for child care and don't have a safety net of savings are suddenly dealing with food and housing insecurity.
  • On the high end of the wage spectrum, there are lots of cases of women in office jobs who are turning down promotions, University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson says.
  • "There are a lot of women in that position right now. They're saying, 'Sorry, my kids can't handle this,'" she says. "It’s been a rough year and they’re just trying to figure out how to make it a less tough year."

And the crisis women face today also has the potential to affect future generations and their decisions to start families or strive for promotions in their careers, says Stevenson.

  • "What are the girls who are watching this thinking? Will they think kids are too hard? Will they decide not to lean in?"
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