May 25, 2023 - Economy

Return of working moms defies pandemic expectations

Data: Misty Heggeness using Current Population Survey (CPS), U.S. Census Bureau/Bureau of Labor Statistics via ipums.org; Chart: Axios Visuals

The percentage of women with children who are working is back to a peak level last seen in 2019.

Why it matters: The pandemic was supposed to spell doomsday for working women, mothers in particular. That's not what happened.

  • The state of women in the workplace has in some ways emerged stronger than ever.
  • "At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all asking ourselves if mother's labor force participation would ever recover," said Misty Heggeness, a former Census Bureau economist. "Definitely, the answer is a resounding yes. Not only did it recover, it is currently on fire."

Zoom out: The ability to work remotely was a game-changer for parents but especially mothers.

  • Many women around the country were able to keep their jobs and juggle increased demands from family life during the crisis.
  • The vast majority of parents now find that working from home enables a level of work-life balance that was impossible to pull off before.

"Three years ago, flexible work was novel. Two years ago, it was normal. Today, it’s necessary," writes Erin Grau in Fortune magazine.

  • Grau argues that flexible work arrangements are feminist and mark a change in work norms that have roots in an early 20th-century conception of how work and home life should be constructed (i.e., with men in an office and women in the home.)
  • Some of the most vocal proponents of returning to work have been the types of men who are less typically hindered by the demands of home life and thus protected from its costs, including JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
  • "[T]he demographic which benefited most from the old system has also expressed the most anxiety about changing it," writes Grau.

Striking stat: Work-life balance was the top reason workers said they preferred remote work, according to an annual Fed survey of American households released Monday morning.

  • In a separate survey of women who worked full-time hybrid roles, 63% said they considered hybrid work a caregiving benefit. 88% said hybrid work "serves as an equalizer in the workplace."

The share of women with children under 18 in the workforce is now well above where it was in February 2020 at 71.6%

  • In March 2023, mothers' labor force participation was at 75.2%, a high last touched in October 2019.

For example: Working remotely meant that Kristin Coleman, a marketing manager in Jacksonville, Fla., was able to have a baby girl on her own last year without having to jeopardize her career, she told Axios.

  • The transition back to work after maternity leave was much easier, too.  Her daughter is home all day, looked after by Coleman's mom. "If I'm between a call, I can go say hello to her," she said. And she doesn't lose hours to commute time, and can instead spend them with her baby.

Reality check: Crucially, most low-wage women aren't able to work remotely.

  • If you look under the hood you'll see that workforce participation for women without a college degree (less likely to work from home) hasn't quite bounced back as much as for those who did go to college, per data parsed by Heggeness, now an associate professor at the University of Kansas.
  • Women's labor force participation overall is still a smidge lower than where it was in 2019 — and overall far lower than where it is for men.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where Emily Peck, filling in for host Niala Boodhoo, shares more about how working mothers in the U.S. defied expectations.

Go deeper