Hundreds Of Thousands Of Women Have Left The Workforce: What Can We Do About It?

Urgent action is needed to help protect women’s careers and save the future of work, which includes supporting work-life boundaries through flexibility.
  • New research shows that four times more women have left the workforce than men.
  • It paints a grim picture of the continuing impact that COVID-19 has had on the US labor force.
  • Consequences of this trend are worrisome both for working women and for the US economy.

A staggering number of women left the United States labor force last month according to an analysis of the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) monthly report.

Of the 1.1 million workers over the age of 20 that dropped out, the National Women’s Law Center reports that 865,000 of them were women. This is in comparison to 216,000 men that left during the same time period. These numbers reflect people that are not working and are no longer looking for work, which means they are no longer included in the overall unemployment rate.

These numbers paint a grim picture of the continuing impact that COVID-19 has had on the US labor force.

In their sixth annual Women in the Workplace study, McKinsey & Company, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, emphasize the disproportionate negative impact it has had on women, particularly women of color. For the first time since the study has been conducted, women are leaving the workforce at higher rates than men. Lean In CEO Rachel Thomas told Time’s Abby Vesoulis, “If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it. We have never seen numbers like these.”

Why are four times more women leaving the workforce than men?

The Women in the Workplace study finds that as many as one in four women are either leaving the workforce completely or downshifting their careers for the time being. The reasons so many women are leaving the workforce are directly attributed to the additional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.

For example, working mothers are one demographic that is distinctly at risk of leaving the workforce. The multiple demands of working full time while also raising and educating children is leaving mothers, more so than fathers, stressed and burned out. With many childcare centers and schools not physically open across the United States, childcare and household responsibilities are falling predominantly on women. 

Another reason women are opting out of the workforce, as discussed by Alisha Haridasani Gupta in a recent article for the New York Times, is the earnings gap between men and women, especially when that gap is present between earners in a household with children. As the burden of unpaid labor increases, including caretaking, many dual-income families are making a choice to have the lower wage earner bow out of their jobs. Most frequently, it is women who are the lower wage earners.

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“In a year marked by crisis and uncertainty, corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices companies make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come.”

– Report: Women in the Workplace 2020

What can be done to support working women?

Consequences of this trend are not only worrisome for working women and their personal career and financial goals, but for the US economy. As noted by Vesoulis in the Time article, an extensive study by Pepperdine University of 215 Fortune 500 firms over 19 years shows a strong correlation between having women in executive positions and the organization’s profitability.

In research released by S&P Global on women as drivers of economic growth, they found that an increase in the number of women participating in the workforce could add almost $6 trillion to the global market capitalization in the next 10 years.

In order to sustain women in the workforce and to reverse this trend, the McKinsey report made several recommendations that companies can implement.

Making work more sustainable is the first recommendation. Companies need to ensure that expectations and pacing of work that were set pre-COVID are still realistic for their employees. The second recommendation is to support flexibility and work-life boundaries. Employees need to be able to “turn off” to avoid burnout while juggling the demands of work and added home responsibilities, and need the support of their employers to do so.

Additionally, the report discussed the opportunities that permanent remote work could open up, particularly for caregivers and people with disabilities. Specifically, the authors state, “These employees will be able to take on jobs that previously would have required them to relocate, travel extensively, or manage a long commute.”

Finally, the report cautions against implementing any solution based on a generalized assessment of the issue. Two trends were highlighted. One, that women across the board are having a worse experience than men as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. But two, that women are not having identical experiences to one another. How companies address this crisis for their employees must take into account any distinct challenges playing a role in order to truly support women. 

Author’s Footnote: This article was written from home while juggling two young children – one a rambunctious toddler, the other in distance elementary school – in addition to running a coworking business. That irony is not lost on this author.

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