IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Women are driving the labor market’s post-pandemic recovery

Labor-force participation among women in their prime working years returned to pre-pandemic levels in January, but the gains haven’t been spread evenly.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 27: Commuters, most most of whom wear face masks, travel on the L train system in the Loop on July 27, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to recommend that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high Covid-19 transmission rates as the delta variant begins to cause a spike in coronavirus cases in some regions of the country.
A commuter travels along the L train system in the Loop in Chicago on July 27, 2021. Many women have gone back to work as the pandemic ebbs.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

After suffering steeper job losses than men in the Covid-19 recession, many women have quickly regained their footing in an economy benefiting from historically low unemployment.

Labor force participation among women between the prime working ages of 25 and 54 has virtually made a full recovery, according to government data released last week. At 76.9%, the share of women in that age group who were working or actively looking for work in January was essentially back to its pre-pandemic level of 77%.

The rebound comes after 13.6 million women, or 18% of the entire U.S. female population, lost their jobs during the depths of the pandemic. Those losses were steeper than for the 11.9 million men who lost their jobs, or 14% of the U.S. male population, over the same time period.

Men of prime working age, by contrast, have yet to experience a full recovery. While labor force participation among 25- to 54-year-old men outstripped the rate among women in the same age group, at 88.5% in January, it was still shy of February 2020’s level of 89.2%, according to federal data.

The American labor force looks different today than it did before Covid-19 slammed into the global economy.

Overall labor force participation for all workers older than 16 remains below pre-pandemic levels, largely due to a wave of retirements as the workforce continues to age. (Experts say deaths during the pandemic and immigration policies have also contributed.) And while many older workers have rejoined the workforce in pursuit of income as the economy recovers, federal policymakers and economists anticipate that millions of recent retirees may never reverse course and return to the job market.

But among women in their prime working years, employment gains appear to be strong. The Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank, estimated this month that 993,000 more mothers were working in December 2022 than the year before, underscoring the role that women with relatively younger children are playing in the recovery. Once kept home by limited child care options and other factors, more women have returned to work amid school reopenings and the availability of Covid vaccines for children.

Beth Almeida, a senior fellow at CAP, said women’s labor force participation had already been trending upward before the pandemic, suggesting a pent-up eagerness to return to work as the health crisis ebbed.

“Women, after really fighting for a lot of the gains and having opportunities in the workplace, weren’t just going to kind of walk away from that,” she said.

Another major factor in the rebound: a hot economy packed with employers looking for workers in most corners of the job market. The number of job openings remained well above pre-pandemic levels into the end of 2022, as government data showed employers looking to fill some 11 million positions, leaving roughly 1.7 jobs for every person hunting for work. As of last month, the overall unemployment rate was 3.4%, a low not seen since 1969.

But women’s recent job gains haven’t been spread evenly, and those with less education continue to face disproportionate obstacles in finding work.

While the number of employed women with four-year college degrees is above pre-pandemic levels, CAP found that there were fewer women without college degrees at work today than in February 2020. Less educated women were also more likely to have suffered job losses during the pandemic, given the impact of economic shutdowns on lower-wage, service workers.

Almeida said the high cost of child care is the biggest burden for low-wage earners. “If you’re not able to attain child care that’s affordable, even if there’s plentiful jobs, you can’t work in one,” she said. Women with higher-earning jobs may be less likely to face that trade-off.

However, as CAP noted in its February report, “Regardless of age or parental status, women were a staggering five to eight times more likely [than men] to experience a caregiving impact on their employment in 2022.”