Today’s labor force participation rate of prime-age women, traditionally defined as those aged 25-54, is 77.6%—a full rebound from COVID-era levels and exceeding pre-pandemic levels. A BPC-Artemis survey of non-working prime-age adults, defined as those aged 20-54 who are not full-time students, reveals that, despite recent gains, women continue to face barriers to entering and remaining in the workforce. Among women who are not currently looking for work—and thus not in the labor force—caring for children is a leading factor in their decision not to seek employment. The survey suggests that improved family-friendly policies, like child care benefits and paid leave, are crucial to attracting and retaining women in the workforce.
Finding 1: Prime-age women are substantially more likely than men to remain out of the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, primarily to care for children full-time.
Note: Responses from prime-age women not in the labor force.
Fifty percent of prime-age women who are not in the labor force cited caring for others as the main reason they are not working, with 48% specifically citing caring for children full-time. Prime-age men not in the labor force were much less likely to report caregiving responsibilities (9%), such as caring for children full-time (5%), as their main reason.
Finding 2: Prime-age women agree that access to affordable, quality child care is a critical workforce support, particularly for women with young children.
Note: Responses from prime-age women not in the labor force for child-related reasons.
Child care concerns, specifically related to the cost and quality of care, are major factors preventing women from working. Among women not looking for work who indicated that caring for children or the lack of family-friendly benefits are reasons they are not in the labor force, 53% cited the cost or quality of child care as a factor in their decision. Moreover, when asked about specific characteristics of child care, 88% of women not looking for work indicated that trust in their local child care provider(s) is the most important characteristic when considering whether to enter or return to the labor force. Other important characteristics to women not looking for work include cost (86%), choice in the type of child care (78%), and access to infant or toddler care (65%). The high response rates for each of these characteristics suggest that trust, cost, and choice in type of child care can all play a significant role in incentivizing women to participate in the workforce.
Finding 3: Most women caring for children reported that access to paid parental leave, among other benefits, would make them more likely to enter or return to work.
Note: Responses from prime-age women not in the labor force for a child-related reason.
Many workers still lack access to paid parental leave to care for a newborn, adopted child, or foster child. Only 47% of prime-age women not in the labor force had access to any type of paid leave benefits at previous jobs. Prime-age women who are not in the labor force because they are caring for children may have stayed in their previous job and would be more likely to enter or return to work in the future if they had paid parental leave. Specifically, 38% say they would have probably or definitely stayed in their previous job if their employer had offered paid parental leave. Moreover, 44% say that if a future employer were to offer paid parental leave, they would be more likely to enter the workforce going forward. Prime-age women with younger children (under the age of 6) were even more likely to say access to paid parental leave would help get them into the workforce with 55% saying they would be more likely to enter the workforce. Women not in the workforce ranked paid family and medical leave (15%) as important as compensation (16%) when identifying the single most important benefit for returning to work.
Finding 4: Among women who say their personal health was a major reason for not working, the majority of women looking for work said that access to paid medical leave would make them more likely to return to work.
Note: Responses from prime-age women not in the labor force. Lighter maroon columns indicate the subcategories that make up the “NET” category listed before it.
After caregiving, personal health is the second leading reason many prime-age women are out of the workforce. In particular, one-quarter (25%) of all prime-age women not in the workforce cite personal health concerns as the main reason they are not working. Many listed physical, mental, or behavioral health concerns as a major factor: 31% cited a personal illness, injury, or disability; 21% cited mental health challenges; and 6% cited drug use. Meanwhile, 40% of prime-age women who are not in the labor force due to personal health challenges say they would be more likely to enter or return to work if they were offered paid leave for personal illness or injury. Interestingly, among non-working women with illness or disability who are actively looking for a new job, that figure increases to 69%, suggesting that paid personal medical leave can serve as a vital accommodation for women who are actively seeking work but must attend to health challenges. As such, access to paid leave for a personal illness or injury can be an important benefit for attracting or retaining workers.
While caregiving responsibilities and health-related concerns remain long-standing barriers to boosting women’s labor force participation, the recent BPC-Artemis survey demonstrates that key policy interventions could alleviate or mitigate these challenges. Policies addressing gaps in child care access, paid leave, and workplace flexibility offer crucial workplace supports that can help improve women’s labor force participation.
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