The Women’s Recession Is Officially Over. But Not Everyone Has Recovered Equally
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the labor market and women lost millions of jobs, the country plunged into the first women’s recession. It was the first time women had experienced more job losses than men in one catastrophic economic contraction.
Economists feared it could take decades for women to recover. But just three years later, that recovery has already arrived.
As a group, women are back to pre-pandemic employment levels. They are now half of the labor force — a threshold they have crossed only twice before. And prime-age working women, those ages 25 to 54, have led that recovery, forging ahead into new careers, pushing for jobs with better pay and benefits and reaping the rewards of workplaces that are more accommodating of remote work, which often allows them the flexibility to manage caregiving responsibilities.
Still, not all workers have had equal access to that changed workplace landscape. Though they have made gains, Black women, in particular, have recovered more slowly considering how hard they were hit by job loss at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s not the economy that’s resilient,” said Jocelyn Frye, the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “It’s women that are resilient in that economy. I never underestimate the ability of women, generally, and women of color, specifically, to basically absorb the shock of a moment and sort of make it work. We have an economy that has largely been built on the backs of women making it work.”
In August, the labor force participation rate for women ages 25 to 54 was 77.6 percent, compared with 77 percent in February 2020 just before the economy crashed. That figure represents the share of women in that population who are working or actively looking for work, and it’s a key metric to assess the health of the economy. It’s also a milestone: Women in that cohort have remained at or above 77.5 percent since April of this year, marking the highest recorded rates in history. There’s also evidence much of that rebound was driven by women with young children, with the labor force participation rate for women with children under the age of 5 around 70.4 percent — an all-time high, according to a study by think tank the Brookings Institution.
By comparison, prime-age working men have also recovered, but by a smaller margin: Their labor force participation rate was 89.3 in August, compared with 89.2 pre-pandemic.
Women are also back as 49.9 percent of the workforce as of August, on par with highs in the second half of 2009, as more men lost jobs in the Great Recession, and in mid-2019, just before the pandemic and the women’s recession started.