For more than a year, the U.S. has been flooded with gloomy headlines and dire predictions about women and work. "The pandemic is devastating a generation of working women," opined one Washington Post writer in February. Citing data showing that 2.5 million women dropped out of the workforce since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vice President Kamala Harris said "the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk."
Harris called it a "national emergency"—albeit one that could be fixed by greenlighting the Biden administration's coronavirus spending plan.
And so the narrative typically goes: women's employment prospects are in crisis; the way out is passing the Democrats' preferred economic policies. (See Matt Welch in Reason's June print issue for more on this rhetoric.)
But the magnitude of this gender gap has never been as great as many have made it out to be. And recent data cast further doubt on the "she-cession" narrative. At the end of April 2021, the unemployment rate for women was slightly lower than the unemployment rate for men. And the women's labor force participation rate had recovered almost as much as the men's rate had.*
Just How Big Are These Gender Gaps Now?
To read headlines about gender and job losses, one might get the impression that U.S. women are faring drastically worse on the coronavirus-era employment front than men are. Yet such losses have never been as drastically gendered as many doomsayers let on.
"Labor force participation—defined as all civilians working full or part time, as well as those who are unemployed but looking for work—fell dramatically for both genders between March and April 2020," noted Gallup. In April 2020, men's labor force participation was at 97.8 percent of its February 2020 level and women's labor force participation was 96.9 percent of its February 2020 level—a gender gap of just 0.9* percentage points.
By February 2021, labor force participation for both sexes had ticked back up somewhat. And while women were still seeing a less full recovery, the gap was again less than one percentage point. Compared to February 2020, men's February 2021 labor force participation was 2.2 percent smaller and women's was 3.1 percent smaller.
That's not nothing—"the gap in labor force changes amounts to roughly 493,000 more women than men being absent from the labor force since the pandemic began," Gallup pointed out in early March. But it's also not evidence that women have been uniquely devastated by pandemic-related job losses, especially when—contra previous economic downturns—many of the circumstances that initially created the job losses will remedy quickly as life returns to a more normal pace.
Indeed, that already seems to be happening, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
In April 2021, the labor force participation rate for U.S. men 20 and older was 69.8 percent, down from 71.6 percent in February 2020. For women, it was 57.2 percent in April, down from the 59.2 percent in February 2020. So, while women's labor force participation was lower than men's at the start of the pandemic and still is, women aren't far behind men at reaching their pre-pandemic participation level, with the April 2021 labor force participation rate for men 1.8 percentage points lower and the rate for women down 2 percentage points.*
The labor force participation rate is a separate measure than the unemployment rate, which is concerned with how many people are out of work and actively seeking a job. On unemployment, U.S. women are also faring better than their male counterparts (though "better" here does come with some caveats, since unemployment numbers don't include people out of a job and not seeking a new one).
In April 2021, the unemployment rate for U.S. men ages 20 and older was at 6.1 percent, down 7 percentage points from its April 2020 peak. For women ages 20 and older, it was at 5.6 percent—down 9.9 percentage points since the previous April.
Put another way, women's unemployment rate is now just 2.5 percentage points higher than it was in pre-pandemic times, while men's unemployment rate is 2.9 percentage points higher.
The Truth Behind the Panic
It is true that American women initially lost more jobs to COVID-19 than their male counterparts did (in contrast to the typical recession pattern).
In February 2020, the civilian unemployment rate for women age 20 and up was 3.1 percent, according to BLS data. For men, it was 3.2 percent. But by the end of April 2020, the unemployment rate for women had jumped to 15.5 percent, while for men it only jumped to 13.1 percent.
Two explanations for this discrepancy have emerged. First, women tend to outnumber men as the primary caregivers for children and elderly or ailing family members, leaving them more vulnerable to work disruptions when schools and child care centers shut down, when kids need homeschooling, or when relatives need care. Second, women are more highly concentrated in retail, leisure, and hospitality jobs, which were more heavily affected by pandemic-related closures, restrictions, and mandates.
While the first factor has gained the most attention, the second one may be the bigger culprit.
Labor force participation for women with children did indeed drop more than it did for men with children, "consistent with the theory that working mothers disproportionately took themselves out of the labor force to care for children who were no longer able to attend day care or school," noted Gallup. Yet "the drops among women without children and men without children are also sizable," which "suggests that factors other than child care have significantly influenced decisions to leave the workforce."
"Overall, these labor force patterns seem largely tied to occupational differences between women and men," according to Gallup's analysis of BLS data. "Occupations with a higher share of women have exhibited lower labor force participation rates and higher unemployment rates throughout the pandemic."
Either explanation suggests that—for both women and men—the drop is more likely short-term than long-term.
A Call to Arms?
Given the current state of recovery, "it does not make sense to enact permanent programs, such as government-run paid family and medical leave, subsidized childcare, and universal pre-K with the justification of fixing a COVID -19 disparity that no longer exists," argues Heritage Foundation research fellow Rachel Greszler in a new report.
"Policymakers can do far more to help women and families by removing government-imposed barriers to flexible work, to employer-provided paid family and medical leave, and to accessible and affordable childcare than by adding costly and bureaucratic new programs and upending the labor market in ways that would limit families' incomes and choices," she posits.
Flexible work arrangements are something cited by women and men as one of their top employment wishes. To the extent that the pandemic has normalized more working from home or working non-traditional hours—and done so in a gender-neutral way—it could be good for workers generally, good for working parents, and especially good for women, who in pre-pandemic times were more likely to take advantage of flexible work policies.
"The pandemic caused a massive leap forward in technology that has likely resulted in a larger increase in workplace flexibility and family-friendly policies over the course of one year than would otherwise have been achieved over an entire decade," observes Greszler.
She also points to another positive sign for female workers: "Between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, the median usual weekly earnings of women increased by 5.3 percent, while men's rose by 2.2 percent."
*Correction: This article originally misstated the percentage difference in labor force participation between men and women.