Millions of women who care for children or aging parents need work that pays a living wage. But equally as important — they need a job that fits their personal circumstances.
The pandemic changed the game on many working-class moms and caretakers in low-wage jobs and at or below the poverty line. Schools and childcare centers closed. Businesses shut down.
For these women, especially for single-parent heads of household, work is a lifeline as they financially support themselves, their children and provide care for their parents. Yet, they've been forced to drop out of the labor force in record numbers.
To better meet their responsibilities at work and home, women need flex- and remote-work options that pay a living wage. And now that the economy is returning, they're still left behind.
In 16 months, the pandemic demolished many industries, and more than 4 million women remain unemployed because of the COVID economic fallout. A generation of gains were lost in just a few months. The aftermath continues to have a detrimental effect on their ability to survive, particularly for Latinas and Black women who've been slower to reenter the workforce than white women.
As states move to end enhanced unemployment benefits, this lifeline will make survival more difficult for working-class women if they're not able to obtain jobs and pay that fit their life circumstances.
But it's not all bad news for some women. For those who've managed to hang on to their jobs or use their transferable skills to find work in a different industry, wages stayed steady or rose in many instances. Meanwhile, women made deeper inroads into male-dominated industries, accelerating pre-pandemic trends of gender diversification in these industries.
And as the economy returns, the upside is that these expanded opportunities will help women better maintain the balance between home and work. Women@Work identified 21 industries where women can capitalize on their transferable skills and get jobs now.
While there is hope, there's still a steep hill to a full recovery.
Unlike previous recessions that undermined male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing, this downturn has disproportionately affected industries in which women are overrepresented, such as health care, food service, hospitality and service roles that require face-to-face interaction.
Women in low-to-medium skill occupations that don't require an advanced degree saw mass job losses in education, food services, child care, cosmetology, cleaning, health care support and retail.
While these industries are beginning to bounce back, women face considerable hurdles in returning to work, like a lack of child care options, flexible schedules and decent wages. That's why their labor force participation rate — the percentage of working-age women working or looking for a job — remains at a 30-year low.
Barriers to re-entering the workforce persist: Low wages, family obligations
Women have dropped out of the labor force in record numbers. But why?
Part of the problem is a lack of child care and employment opportunities that offset the child care costs and the societal expectations that women will take care of elders and the housework. The issue is compounded by a lack of jobs that offer flexible schedules, the ability to work from home, or benefits that address these underlying needs.
Some women have found the wages simply aren't worth it. In retail and food service, quit rates are at an all-time high.
Carole Leigh Hutton, charged with building women's careers for Inforum, pointed out that simply needing to pick up your kid from daycare can hold you back from getting the big, career-building assignments. "Men are very rarely facing that, whereas women face it all the time."
While many women face huge barriers, other women have chosen to drop out of the labor force, waiting for a better opportunity to come along as they survive on their pandemic savings, or they have a supportive spouse who's managed to keep their job.
"Many women and families have found that they enjoy the flexibility afforded by the pandemic, with more time for families and children, despite lower income," Joyce Chen, a labor economist at Ohio State University, said.
"The enormous amount of stress placed on women during the pandemic has also led many to reconsider their work decisions even as restrictions have eased, with some perhaps opting for a different work-life balance now."
Women make further inroads into male-dominated occupations
Krystle Burmylo was hoping to become a ticketing agent at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago when the pandemic interrupted her career.
The 35-year-old lived off unemployment until October when the $600 enhanced benefits ran out, and she landed a position weighing trucks at a steel mill. "Most people don't want to work an overnight shift," she said. "But I'm fine with it." She's the only woman on staff who works directly with the drivers.
Women entering male-dominated occupations is nothing new. Yet, the pandemic seems to have accelerated this trend.
In the COVID downturn, these sectors traditionally staffed by men held up better than female-heavy service sectors, so women who lost their jobs found opportunity elsewhere. For their part, some employers have made deliberate efforts to increase gender equity as research finds diverse teams outperform their less diverse peers.
Twenty-two out of the 25 occupations with the greatest increases in female employment from 2019 to 2020 were male-dominated, W@W research found. The number of female drywall installers, for instance, shot up 900%, going from less than 1% of the workforce to nearly 6%. The number of female highway maintenance workers doubled.
Erik Antokal, assistant vice president of programs at Nontraditional Employment for Women, helps prepare, train, and place women in careers in the skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades.
"There is no other career track where you can make $100,000 a year with just a high school diploma and the ability to show up on time," Antokal said. "If the money doesn't persuade people, it's the comradery and social network that comes with it."
Not all of the construction occupations in W@W's research are six-figure jobs, but they offer the potential to grow. While some women have turned to these occupations out of necessity, others have a deep abiding passion for the work.
Minneapolis native Stella Robinson enjoyed troubleshooting electrical equipment for her fencing team in high school, so she enrolled at Dunwoody College of Technology.
"I knew I wanted to go to school for something where I get to use my hands," Robinson said. "I was recently diagnosed with ADHD. I need to do things where I move because otherwise, I will have a really difficult time."
She graduated in May and immediately found an apprenticeship at an electrical company. It's a job she finds highly satisfying.
"When you flip the switch, and the lights come on," the 20-year-old said, "There's really not a whole lot that compares."
Women's wage growth rose in occupations with low barriers of entry
Women's wages have proven surprisingly resilient for an economic downtown, especially in occupations with low entry barriers.
Among the roles that don't require an advanced education, 13 of the 21 industries saw positive wage growth during the pandemic.
As companies faced worker shortages, one theory argues, they increased the pay of those who stayed on board. For example, full-time administrative supervisors saw a 13% increase in salary/wages while there was a 2% decrease in total women workers. Meanwhile, full-time office and administrative support workers saw a 7% increase in salary/wages but experienced a nearly 12% decline in total women employed.
Most workers aren't getting to enjoy these higher wages. The lowest-wage workers were least likely to remain in the economy after the pandemic hit, losing nearly 7.9 million jobs, while the highest-wage workers gained a million.
Nonetheless, as the economy bounces back, these very same workers are entering a job seeker's market, in which employers are offering higher wages, hiring bonuses and even perks like free pizza to anyone willing to take a service sector job. Some states, blaming unemployment for the labor shortage, are cutting their enhanced benefits early.
This upward pressure on wages may not last. Enhanced unemployment benefits expire in September. Companies like McDonald's are rolling out new technologies that could replace some of their low-skill workers.
Pandemic makes employers more understanding of women's needs
Employers are beginning to wake up to the unique hurdles women face in coming back to work: A lack of child care options, flexible schedules and decent wages.
Julie Scheeringa needed a babysitter for her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter just as the Farmhouse Restaurant in Fair Oaks, Indiana, started losing customers due to the pandemic. Fewer customers meant fewer tips, which meant no money for the babysitter.
"No matter what I made each day, I had to pay the babysitter the same amount," the 34-year-old single mom said about the pandemic's impact on her income.
Employers are responding. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a group of bars and restaurants bumped their minimum wage to $16 an hour and eliminated tips. Six restaurants in Portland committed to increasing wages, keeping tips, offering health insurance, and paying sick leave. Even McDonald's increased their company-owned restaurants' wages by an average of 10%.
"The age of looking at kitchen work and service work as 'less than' is over," Corrinna Stum, the owner of the restaurant Ruby's, told Portland Press Herald. "It is good, steady work. You can make a living at it. It is a trade."
For women who were adversely affected by the pandemic, the journey is far from over.
Analysis of employment and wage/salary data for women is based on annual findings published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unless indicated otherwise, employment growth/losses reflect all employment (i.e., full-time and part-time) for individual job occupations. Calculations employed in the analysis reflect relative change. Initial findings used for the data analysis represent the timeframe of 2017 to 2020. Additional analysis will be completed for 2004-2016 in the near future.
Approximately 600 job occupations are involved in the analysis. As the BLS adds new job occupations, deletes some, and combines others each year, it is not possible to provide year-to-year analysis for every job occupation. In addition, employment and wage/salary gender-specific data is unavailable for some of the job occupations included in each annual report.