Successfully Rebuilding U.S. Workforce Depends on Women

The pandemic has rattled the U.S. economy. At its worst, the unemployment rate jumped to 14.8 percent last year, a sharp increase from the pre-pandemic low of 3.5 percent in February 2020. Today, while the unemployment rate has fallen to six percent, some 9.7 million Americans remain unemployed – roughly half of them women.

There’s ample research and media coverage about the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on women in the workforce, this so-called “She-cession”. Women bore the brunt of childcare, remote learning, and household responsibilities during COVID, making it difficult if not impossible to simultaneously balance a career. Women were also more likely to have lower-paying jobs, or work in industries like retail and hospitality that require face-to-face contact and don’t easily translate to a remote environment.

Overall, women lost a net 5.4 million jobs during 2020, about a million more job losses than men, and 2.5 million women chose to leave the labor force altogether. As we near the light at the end of the tunnel and look forward to post-pandemic life, how can we pave the way to not only rebuild the female labor force, but create better, higher-paying career opportunities for women? 

History tells us that, when the number of women in the workforce rises, so too does GDP, underscoring the vital importance of female labor participation. The pandemic illuminated barriers to workforce participation for women, chiefly lack of childcare options and flexibility to accommodate family demands.

We took a deep-dive into this issue at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation; our research confirmed that the majority of parents have yet to find a stable childcare situation that is necessary to return to work. Women are much less likely to have returned to work than men (54% vs. 73%), as are low-income parents compared to middle- income parents (57% vs. 66%).  Worse, 14 percent of women have declined a new job opportunity (compared to seven percent of male parents) due to lack of childcare.

Additionally, women are less likely to pursue the education credentials necessary to compete for the most high-paying jobs, gravitating instead toward studies in social sciences and liberal arts that lead to lower-paying career pathways. College majors that lead to higher-paying jobs in fields like engineering and technology, on the other hand, are often male-dominated.

Recent research from the University of Missouri used a career discovery tool called YouScience to compare high school students’ self-reported interests and assessed aptitudes in four rapidly growing industries (health care, construction, manufacturing, and computer technology). The data confirmed what we’ve known all along: women and men have equal abilities to successfully compete for these in-demand jobs. But too often, women are dissuaded from jobs in these fields due to a lack of exposure, gender stereotypes, or perceived “societal norms”.

As we work to rebuild our economy post-COVID, employers and the business community writ large must make intentional decisions to better align talent with educational pathways and labor market needs. This will require a concerted effort to develop and invest in women to effectively recoup and strengthen the female labor force.

Fortunately, the business community is ideally positioned to successfully confront this workforce challenge. Employers and state and local chambers of commerce can proactively lead efforts to support recruiting more women into the workforce and provide solutions that actively lift those up who have fallen behind in this economy.

Over the coming months, the Chamber Foundation will host a series of Talent Forward events geared toward helping the business community play a central role in rebuilding and diversifying our workforce in the wake of the COVID pandemic. 

On May 18, our first event in this series focused specifically on the devastating effects of the pandemic on women – and especially women of color. Business leaders like Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and founder of a women’s investment platform and financial literacy program called Ellevest, helped lead the discussion on ways companies can break new ground in the fight to recruit, retain, and support women in the workforce.

There’s no doubt the pandemic has forced us to reconsider what businesses can and should do to support a diverse labor force and a more modern work environment. From flexible hours to childcare benefits to remote office hours, a variety of worthy solutions have come to the forefront in recent months that could make a long-term difference in the shared goal of expanding opportunities for women. As we rebuild our economy and rethink the future of work in America, it is imperative that the business community helps forge a more inclusive path forward. After all, our daughters are watching.