Updated Sep 3, 2023 - Economy

"Shocking": More mothers are working than ever before

Data: Lauren Bauer, the Hamilton Project at Brookings; Note: Includes all mothers whose youngest child is under 5. Chart: Axios Visuals

Defying all expectations, the percentage of women in the workforce with young children is significantly higher than it's ever been, says a new report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

Why it matters: This could represent a "level shift" for working mothers — with potential lifetime consequences in terms of higher earnings and improved career trajectories.

Driving the news: In June, 70.4% of women with children under 5 were in the workforce — compared to a peak of 68.9% before the pandemic, per the report.

  • "In labor force participation rate terms, that's really big," said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at Brookings, who co-authored the report.

What they found: The paper looked at participation rates for all women, those with elementary school-aged kids and those with teens. No other categories have rebounded past their pre-pandemic levels.

  • The numbers surprised Bauer, who called them "shocking." Along with many others, she'd worried that the pandemic would push more mothers out of the workforce.

What happened: More research needs to be done, but it looks like a big factor is remote work, which enabled more women to stay attached to the workforce.

  • The women who were highly educated, and more likely to work from home, were among those more likely to be in the workforce now than pre-pandemic.
  • Plus, as other research has found, the pandemic — and ability to work remotely— may also have led more families to decide to have babies.

Big picture: Advocates for women in the workforce have long argued that more flexibility at work would allow mothers to hang on to their jobs.

  • It's easy to understand why if you're able to telework, you can handle a call from daycare to come pick up a feverish child, manage a midday doctor appointment, or take someone to a playdate.
  • If you can't get that flexibility, you're more likely to leave a high-demand full-time job to go part-time, or exit the workforce entirely.

Reality check: Overall, mothers with very young kids continue to be less likely to be in the workforce than women with older children — or those with no kids, whose labor force participation rate is at about 80%.

What's next: COVID appears to have put new norms in place that actually gave some workers — not just women — more flexibility. The question now is: Are these norms here to stay?

  • Certainly, there are a lot of CEOs (typically men who may not be thinking of these kinds of macro consequences) who are desperate to curtail remote work.

Bottom line: Typically, when women first have a baby that's when they get off track in their career, said Bauer. And that affects the rest of their lives in terms of income, job selection, promotions, etc.

  • It's possible that pattern's been disrupted — and the impact from that will be huge.
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