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A greater percentage of women are working than ever before

Kristin Schwab May 15, 2024
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Some factors that have increased women's labor participation: a tight labor market, higher wages and more jobs with flexible work-from-home options. SDI Productions/Getty Images

A greater percentage of women are working than ever before

Kristin Schwab May 15, 2024
Heard on:
Some factors that have increased women's labor participation: a tight labor market, higher wages and more jobs with flexible work-from-home options. SDI Productions/Getty Images
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Back when she had her first child in 2016, Kristyn Robledo in Rochester, Minnesota, didn’t plan on becoming a stay-at-home mom.

“And then, once I actually had the baby, I realized very quickly I could not manage both,” she said.

Robledo left her job in the medical field. She didn’t get paid parental leave, so she said quitting made sense. And it kept making sense until 2022, when her husband’s work became unsteady. Meanwhile, her industry, health care, was facing a worker shortage. 

“There is a desperation for people,” Robledo said. “I mean, I’m feeling it now since I’m here in this supervisory role.”

Robledo is now a program manager at a group home for aging people. After six years away from work, she said she’s found a job that matches her interests and skills.

“I think it was just the right job at the right time,” she said.

The right job at the right time is what helps get people into the workforce — and keep them there. It may be a reason why the employer-employee match has been improving for women.

“Women’s work patterns have come to look more like men’s in that more women, especially women with college education, are working steadily for more of their adult lives,” said Sarah Damaske, a professor of labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University.

The U.S. has hit a new milestone: The percentage of women in their prime working years, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as women ages 25 to 54, is higher than it has ever been in history, at 78%.

That’s a big number, considering that early in the pandemic, many of the jobs lost were in service industries dominated by women, and many quit their jobs to stay home as caregivers. The decline in working women was so stark that economists created a whole new term: the she-cession.

“The fact that everything’s rebounded so quickly and has remained strong is, I think, really pretty remarkable,” Damaske, said.

A few things are working in tandem to increase labor participation numbers among women. A tight labor market and higher wages tend to draw people back to work. There are also more jobs with flexible work-from-home options. But Sharmili Majmudar, executive vice president of policy, programs and research at the nonprofit Women Employed, said the high labor participation rate goes beyond economics.

“We have to talk about wages, we have to talk about opportunities for advancement,” she said, “and we also have to talk about peoples’ well-being.”

Well-being can come from policy. Earlier in the pandemic, there were federal grants for child care providers. There was also a pause on student loans, of which women hold more debt. There were also stimulus checks and child tax credits. All of these cushions can give people time to find the right job.

But many of those federal benefits have expired, which could translate to women leaving the workforce again.

“The kind of structural policy solutions that we really need to have in place to fully realize the potential of women in the American workforce, those have yet to be implemented,” Majmudar said.

A lack of paid maternity leave is why Sarah Fudge, a construction project manager near Washington, D.C., quit her job in 2022. 

“I didn’t feel that I was making enough money to be worth it for me to take 12 weeks unpaid and then jump back into work,” she said.

She stayed home with her daughter for less than a year. That’s how long it took for hospital bills, diapers and inflation to eat up her and her husband’s savings. She doesn’t qualify for employer-paid maternity leave at her new job either.

“We’ve got baby No. 2 coming in a month,” she said.

She’s taking a short leave and wants to keep her job. To prepare, she put her baby on a day care waitlist before she was even conceived.

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