At the onset of the pandemic, females in the workforce suffered. From February to April 2020, prime-age labor force participation among women plummeted 3.5 percentage points, from 77% to 73.5%. For males, the rate fell by just 2.8 percentage points. As the pandemic’s economic impacts shifted, these participation rates both ticked back up slightly, but in 2022 female workers made a big recovery.
In January, the prime-age female labor force participation rate rose to 76.9% – a near-complete recovery to February 2020’s point. Earlier in 2022 in August, the rate overcame its pre-pandemic level. Women returned to the workforce in 2022 but further increases in participation rates face challenges in 2023.
Part of the reason female employment and participation was hit so badly in 2020 was because of occupational segregation – women made up the majority of the industries hit hardest at the onset of the pandemic (like healthcare, retail, and leisure and hospitality sectors).
The participation recovery, therefore, aligned with the employment recovery in these sectors, healthcare especially. Female workers made up 78.2% of the healthcare and social assistance sector in 2022 – which was an absolute powerhouse of a sector last year, gaining an average of 49,000 per month.
The prime-age female labor force participation rebound also coincided with the widespread reopening of in-person schools and the availability of vaccinations for children under 12. After carrying the burden of childcare during the pandemic, parents of school-aged children could once again return to the workforce.
Even with school openings and vaccinated children, parents are still facing problems with childcare, in part because of the labor shortage in the sector. Last month, the childcare sector was down nearly 57,000 workers compared to February 2022, which has pushed costs up across the country.
This affects all parents of young children but especially mothers. A Labor Department briefing found that higher childcare costs negatively impact female’s employment levels. Low-income mothers are especially at risk. If there is to be sustained growth in women’s labor force participation and employment, childcare services must become more widely available and less expensive.