The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ February Jobs Report highlighted that the United States gained 379,000 jobs and the unemployment rate declined slightly to 6.2%. Beneath the headline figures, however, is the continuation of a troubling trend in labor force participation that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, parent-age women are substantially more likely than parent-age men to remain out of the labor force. While changes in the gender toplines have largely mirrored each other since the beginning of the pandemic, the same is not true among adults ages 20 to 44 who are most likely to have young children:
- Around the time schools restarted last fall, but remained closed for in-person learning, the female labor force participation rate among parent-age workers began lagging the male rate in their recovery to pre-pandemic levels.
- As of February 2021, the labor force participation rate of parent-age women remains 2.7 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level, compared to 1.6 percentage points for parent-age men.
Among parent-age adults, these differences between pre-pandemic and current labor force participation rates equates to a loss of about 1.5 million female workers and 870,000 male workers. Existing evidence suggests that the combination of historic caregiving responsibilities and job loss during the pandemic could be behind this gender divergence.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have focused on the unique challenges that female workers face that have impeded participation in the labor force, including disproportionate job loss and historic caregiving responsibilities.
To start, Chart 1 contains the cumulative monthly percentage point change in the topline rate by gender since the month preceding the pandemic, February 2020. Of note, the topline rate accounts for all workers 16 and over.
Although women were slightly more likely than men to remain out of the labor force by February 2021, change in the female rate has largely tracked that of the male rate. Through the first few months of the pandemic, the labor force participation rates among both men and women declined precipitously, corresponding with the massive job loss occurring at the time. Labor force participation for both genders rebounded through the spring and summer and then stagnated into the fall and winter. As of February 2021, the female and male rates were 2.0 percentage points and 1.8 percentage points lower than in February 2020, respectively.
Because the topline labor force participation figures include workers of all ages 16 and over, they likely mask the outcomes of working parents who are facing heightened caregiving responsibilities. To provide a better sense of the outcomes for these workers, Chart 2 examines changes among workers who are mostly likely to have young children, those ages 20 to 44.1 Examining this population reveals a sizeable and persistent gap between men and women.
Similar to labor force participation of all ages, the decline and subsequent rebound for men and women largely mirrored each other through the summer. However, at the transition from summer to fall—corresponding with schools restarting but remaining remote—labor force participation among women stagnated while it continued to improve for men, resulting in a sustained divergence that continues today. As of February 2021, the participation rate of parent-age women remains 2.7 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level, compared to 1.6 percentage points for men. In this age group, the differences between pre-pandemic and current participation rates equates to a loss of about 1.5 million female workers and 870,000 male workers. In other words, parent-age female workers are substantially more likely to remain out of the labor force than their male counterparts.
As referenced earlier, this trend could be due to a combination of increased caregiving responsibilities as well as the industry and occupation dynamics of this recession, among other potential factors.
A series of research and polls conducted by BPC and others throughout the COVID-19 pandemic highlight both the substantial rise in caregiving duties among adults and the ways that it is preventing many from working. In an August 2020 BPC-Morning Consult poll, over 70% of parents reported their child care programs have either closed or operated at reduced capacity during the pandemic. BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative also reported that more than 23 million workers have been left with no at-home care options for their school-aged children. COVID-19 has also likely increased the caregiving responsibilities of the 40 million Americans, most of whom are women, supporting aging parents and other adult dependents.
Recent evidence also highlights that the increase in caregiving responsibilities is driving workers out of the labor force and preventing many from returning to work. An October 2020 BPC-Morning Consult poll found that of those who have left a job during the pandemic, 19% cite caregiving responsibilities. Meanwhile, 42% of women with children under 2 years old have left a job. A July 2020 BPC-Morning Consult poll of workers on unemployment insurance found that 52% of parents who quit their jobs did so due to child care provider and school closures. The survey also found that about a quarter (26%) of those on UI—roughly 8 million workers at the time—primarily spent their time caregiving rather than looking for work. Moreover, of parents not looking to return to work, 59% cited caregiving responsibilities as their primary barrier to employment.
Job loss could also be contributing to lagging labor force participation among parent-age women. In particular, between February and April 2020, 12.2 million women lost their jobs, compared to 10.2 million men. Women, in turn, also experienced higher unemployment. Chart 3 illustrates the unemployment rate by gender, both for all ages 16 and over and those ages 20 to 44.
In April 2020, when the national unemployment rate peaked at 14.8%, the female unemployment rate was 16.1%, 2.5 percentage points higher than the male unemployment rate of 13.6%. The economic damage of the pandemic has centered on in-person service industries in which female workers are concentrated, including restaurants, retail, and hospitality. Additionally, prior to the pandemic, women were less likely than men to be in jobs that would allow them to telecommute. These combined factors resulted in greater female job loss and unemployment.
However, it is important to note that unlike labor force participation, the difference in unemployment rates is little changed when specifically examining parent-age adults. Moreover, after peaking in April 2020, the unemployment rates for men and women in each of the categories in Chart 3 have since declined together and converged. This suggests that factors outside of pandemic-related job loss and unemployment, such as caregiving, could explain the sustained disparity in parent-age male and female labor force participation.
Women have made extensive economic gains over the past several decades by investing in education and growing their professional careers, all while balancing family responsibilities. However, COVID-19 has burdened women with historic caregiving responsibilities and pandemic-related job loss. This analysis highlights that, relative to prior to the pandemic, women ages 20 to 44 are substantially more likely than men in the same age group to remain out of the labor force. Despite declining unemployment, the gender gap persists. As the $1.9 trillion stimulus package nears passage this week, these trends highlight the need for lawmakers to continue providing emergency supports like paid sick and family leave. They also underscore why long-term investments in these and other supports, such as improved and expanded child care options for parents who must delicately balance work and family are critical for our nation’s sustained success.
1 We chose to analyze the 20-44 age range because, according to the Census Bureau, household heads in that age group are the most likely to have children under 12. As a result, this group is more likely to have child care responsibilities than the broader labor force. For more information on the distribution of households by age of parent and children, see America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2019, Census Bureau, Table F1. Family Households, by Type, Age of Own Children, Age of Family Members, and Age of Householder: 2019, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2019/demo/families/cps-2019.html.