In just one year, the coronavirus pandemic has decimated women’s participation in the workforce.
More than 2.3 million women have left the labor market entirely since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And the numbers could continue to grow. According to a report from Lean In and McKinsey & Co., 1 in 4 women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to the impact of COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, women made up more than 50% of the U.S. workforce. But that number has dropped to levels not seen since 1988, as many women, particularly mothers, have been furloughed or laid off. With day care centers and schools shut down, many women have had to choose between showing up to work and caring for their children.
Studies estimate that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with two women, Lauren Pyle in San Antonio and Kelli LaFont in Fayetteville, Tennessee, about how this pandemic has affected their working lives. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Lauren, let me start with you. And tell me, I guess, in a nutshell, what the last year has been like for you. Where were you a year ago? And where are you today?
Lauren Pyle: Ah, so a year ago, I was sent home from work, we were doing remote. My husband was as well. My 8-year-old, who was in first grade, went virtual with school. So, he’s an engineer. I’m a public servant. I just kind of worked with economic assistance, stuff like [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], Medicaid, stuff like that. And yeah, we were just kind of dealing with it.
Ryssdal: And so, but you’ve had to move, your husband had to look for a job. I mean, there’s a whole backstory there. Give me the elevator story.
Pyle: Yeah, so he got laid off in May. He hit the ground running right away looking for work all summer. He was a stay-at-home dad. And we just couldn’t find any work. We were living in South Dakota. So, we extended our search to kind of, you know, cities we had had on our mental list of places we might want to live. So, he got a job. He started in October. My daughter and I hung back and waited for a while to see if that job was too good to be true. And it wasn’t. So, I went ahead and resigned my position. And we drained him down here in Texas.
Ryssdal: Wow. OK, Kelli, what about you? You are still working the same job. But there’s some question as to whether you’re going to be able to keep doing it because of everything that’s going on.
Kelli LaFont: Yeah. So, a year ago, I also went work from home. I work in social services. And my son was able to stay in day care. But there was some time where the day care would close. We got sick around November, we got COVID. And my son had to stay out of day care for a month. Then just continual things started leading to day care closures and not being able to work and have him in day care. And just led us to questioning, is this sustainable? Can I try to hold on to a full-time job and keep a toddler who is in and out of day care? Because day care is inconsistent with COVID.
Ryssdal: Yeah. Yeah. I imagine that the mental stress of wanting to stay but maybe not being able to is really, really hard.
LaFont: Yeah. I love what I do. I love working in social services. And I don’t want to leave that. But I want to do what’s best for my family, too.
Ryssdal: Yeah. Lauren, what does it mean to you to have to have given up your job, not yet found a new one? There are financial hits and I’m sure mental and wellness hits for you as well.
Pyle: Check, check, check. Yeah, so I resigned in December, and I was kind of going through a lot of change with myself. I was like, “Well, maybe I should go to grad school.” So here I am. I decided to start studying for some exams. And then I just got depressed. I was like, “Wow, I really need to find a job.” So, you know, I’ve been casually browsing for jobs. But starting around February or so, I really, like, hit the pavement running. And I haven’t found anything yet. And I was really like, when we moved here, I was like, “Oh, it’ll be so easy. Like, I’m superemployable.” And now here I am, like, I’m really nervous. And that employment gap is getting wider by the day. So, all that stuff is, you know, starting to kind of reveal itself.
Ryssdal: Kelli, what kind of conversations do you have with your friends and maybe even your co-workers about this kind of stuff? I mean, you two are not the only two women in the workforce who are dealing with these challenges.
LaFont: With friends here, I am one of the only friends that I have that is not a stay-at-home mom. So, asking them about their experiences as a stay-at-home mom and how they’re juggling their finances, balancing that against my career aspirations. And I would have a lot of support if I were a stay-at-home mom, but I’m not really passionate about that. Talking to my co-workers, it’s saying, this is hard. I’m kind of in a weird place where I’m the only one with a toddler. So, it’s a different experience.
Ryssdal: What about the conversations with your husband? And this is none of my business, but these are stressful times in a lot of marriages, and money is at the root of so much stress. Even in normal times.
LaFont: We’ve been going over the same thing. Is this sustainable? You know, we never thought it would last this long. And now it’s lasted over a year. Well, if it continues to last as long as we continue to have day care closures, how is this sustainable for our family? This constant change for my son isn’t great. So, my husband is very supportive and saying, “Yeah, stay at your job. Stay in the workforce, since that’s what you’re passionate about.” But if this continues, we may have to have harder conversations.
Ryssdal: Yeah. So maybe one of those harder conversations, and I don’t know, but maybe one of those harder conversations is, “Hey, man, it’s your time to stay home with the toddler.”
LaFont: Unfortunately, my husband is an engineer as well, so he makes quite a bit more than I do.
Ryssdal: I’m laughing, but that’s the, that’s the root of this problem, right?
Pyle: Yeah, for sure. And for me, it’s like it was never a question of who was going to stay home if we had to, it was always going to be me because I make way less, you know. I’d love to say, “Oh, you be a stay-at-home dad. I’m just going to be the breadwinner now.” And I mean, there are people who get by on less. We’ve done it. But I’m like, I don’t want to do that anymore.
LaFont: Yeah. And that’s similar for us, as my husband would love to be a stay-at-home dad, but the pay gap is significant. So, it’s just not sustainable for us.
Ryssdal: Yeah. So, with this problem now of, I mean, there’s a lot of problems, right? There’s the gender pay gap. There’s the expectation that’s put upon women in this society, and also women in the workforce. I wonder what you two think of this being a moment where maybe the conversation changes, and we have finally some movement on this really big-picture issue that is affecting you both in your daily lives, right? So, I mean, Lauren, what do you think?
Pyle: I mean, I’m more worried than I am hopeful about the position of women in the workforce right now. I mean, I feel like we’re already losing so much, you know. I don’t even know the numbers of how many women have had to leave because they’re in the same exact position. I would hope that we start to value these helping professions or pink-collar jobs, as they say, you know, more. But at the same time, like, I’m going to suck it up and I’m going to work the jobs that I love. Because that is what I’m passionate about. I’m not passionate about being a stay-at-home mom either. So, I don’t, I don’t really see that ending in the near future. I hope so. But I don’t know if that’s realistic.
Ryssdal: Kelli, last word to you. What do you think?
LaFont: I’m with Lauren on that too. I would hope that this is the time when we start talking about how this has burdened women and that women are at a disadvantage here because they are expected to be the primary caretaker of the family and they typically earn less. But I’m kind of with Lauren. I just don’t know that I see anything changing.
We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.
Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.
In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.
Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.