© 2024 KRWG
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The factors behind the huge resurgence of women in the workforce


A few years ago, working women were on a roll. We briefly outnumbered men on U.S. payrolls. Then the pandemic struck. Millions of women lost jobs, and many more dropped out of the workforce. Some worried if they'd ever come back. Economist Betsey Stevenson recalls hearing from one of those women who'd been reassured by something Stevenson said on the radio.

BETSEY STEVENSON: She didn't want to quit her job, but her kids didn't have in-person school. She couldn't think of any other solution. And she was driving home from having given her notice, bawling her eyes out, thinking, I can't believe I've done this. And she said, you were on the radio, and you said, when the pandemic is over, they'll go back to work. And she said, I clung to those words for the whole year.

SUMMERS: Stevenson's forecast has now come true. Working women have bounced back from the pandemic, and even more are joining the job market. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Deandrea Rahming left the workforce when her second son was born. She'd always planned on coming back, but it took a long time. Her son is now 15, and his younger sister is just starting school. After being out of the job market since 2008, Rahming wasn't sure how she'd fit in.

DEANDREA RAHMING: I was very apprehensive. Are they going to look at me and say, oh, you've been out of work too long? And then with a woman, it's always, do you have kids? Do you have day care? Are you reliable? Are you going to be punctual? Compounded with everything else, I had some anxiety going back to the office.

HORSLEY: But when she returned to work in Fort Lauderdale, first as a claims adjuster and later an administrative assistant, Rahming found desperate employers were happy to have her, and so were her new coworkers.

RAHMING: It really helped me come out of my shell, and it really eased my anxiety of coming back to work after being at home for so long.

HORSLEY: Having a second income has been a boost for her family's budget, especially with today's high grocery prices and a hungry teenager at home, but Rahming says the satisfaction that comes from working again is bigger than just a paycheck.

RAHMING: I come from a very long line of modern women. My grandmother - she raised six kids by herself after her and her husband divorced, and she was always working. So going back and working and being able to just fulfill that accomplishment - like, OK, yes, I can do this. I still can run with the best of them.

HORSLEY: Women like Rahming are helping to keep the economy running as well. Unemployment's near a half-century low. So in order to keep the economy growing, the U.S. needs to pull more workers off the sidelines.

STEVENSON: Where are the workers going to come from? What we've seen month after month is they are showing up to take the jobs, and in particular it's women showing up to take the jobs.

HORSLEY: Economist Stevenson of the University of Michigan says more than 3 out of 4 women between the ages of 25 and 54 are now working or looking for work. That's not just back to pre-pandemic levels. That's the largest share on record. For African American women in that age range, more than 8 in 10 are in the workforce. There were fears the pandemic would keep women out of the job market for years, but Stevenson says many women were determined to get back to work as soon as possible.

STEVENSON: This generation of women didn't just have a foot in the door. They had their whole body through. And even when they got pushed out, it's that long work experience, the long resumes that help them quickly return.

HORSLEY: Sudarshana Sharma was eager to get back to work. She has two sons, ages 8 and 5, and says supervising their remote schoolwork during the pandemic was suffocating. After six years out of the workforce, Sharma's skills as a software engineer were a little rusty. So she was grateful when Grubhub offered her a six-month trial position, which turned into a permanent job.

SUDARSHANA SHARMA: I got promoted also after a year of working there.

HORSLEY: Sharma understands why some employers might be reluctant to take a chance on someone like her, but she argues working moms have a lot to offer.

SHARMA: If I was a hiring manager and if I had two candidates who - one is a mom and the other is not, I think I will prefer to take the mom because we have time management skills and multitasking - all those things. I think they should take a chance on more moms who are eager to get back to the workforce.

HORSLEY: Sharma is still working remotely in California, which makes it easier to juggle caregiving responsibilities for her older son, who has special needs. There's nothing new about that kind of juggling act, but Christine Winston, who has an organization called Path Forward that helps women return to the workforce, says COVID put it in the spotlight.

CHRISTINE WINSTON: The silver lining of the pandemic is that everyone started to understand the ways that caregiving and career intersect because everybody was at home with their 5-year-old or their 8-year-old who was doing school on Zoom.

HORSLEY: Winston says that experience, coupled with today's super-tight job market, has left employers more willing to accommodate workers who need some extra flexibility.

WINSTON: A lot more employers became aware of the challenges, and I also think a lot more employers became aware that there was this huge pool of talent on the sidelines.

HORSLEY: Of course, many of the problems that sidelined women before the pandemic have not gone away - inadequate child care, for example, and a lack of parental leave. Still, economist Stevenson says employers have learned that offering workers more flexibility is not as costly as they might have thought.

STEVENSON: Workers have had a lot of bargaining power not just for higher wages but to say, you know, I can't come in five days a week, or I've got to be able to pick my kids up from school, and then I can go back to working remotely. People learned to work around the child care demands in the last few years, and that's actually been really helpful.

HORSLEY: That could change if the job market softens and bosses become less willing to make allowances, but so long as the economy keeps adding jobs, employers will be on the lookout for more working women to help fill them. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURYN HILL SONG, "DOO-WOP (THAT THING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.