Women Need Their Jobs Back for This Next Phase of the Economic Recovery

The pandemic-induced recession had a disproportionate impact on women, Black and brown people and low-income workers. We need a gender-justice plan to guarantee an equitable and strong recovery. 

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Despite the Delta variant’s rise, the back-to-school season is off to a more hopeful start this year, with K–12 students largely back in school buildings across the country. Along with it was a hope that mothers—who have disproportionately taken on the burden of unpaid care work during the pandemic—would rush back to the labor market.

But this has not been the case: Reopening schools has clearly not been sufficient to address the long-term impacts COVID has had on mothers’ untenable workloads.

Further, women’s employment prospects have also been impacted by the school system in another way: 225,000 jobs in public education, a sector with one of the highest concentrations of women workers, were lost between August and October 2021. Both of these obstacles will require public investment and government action that centers women’s experiences and needs. In fact, our country as a whole must pivot away from its gender-neutral approach to economic recovery and toward a gender-justice recovery policy. This must recognize women’s prominence in education and care jobs that are largely in the public and nonprofit sectors and require different types of government investment. Doing so will ensure our recovery is more equitable and remains strong. 

Women continue to face obstacles returning to employment due to care responsibilities, often exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, school closures from COVID outbreaks are still a huge challenge for mothers and other caregivers working or looking to work—both remotely and in-person—this school year. Patriarchal family norms and the gender pay gap influence which parent will be the one to risk losing their job.

Policies like paid family leave and public investment in child and elder care—all real possibilities with the passage of the Build Back Better Act—are necessary for women to have a level playing field in the labor market. Additionally, workplaces and states should implement flexible hours, fair workweek laws, and paid sick time to help women address challenges outside of work without fear of losing their jobs. 

Discrimination, sexism and racism have always shaped women’s career choices—what industries they get hired in, what industries are inclusive of them, and, therefore, what industries they gravitate toward. The industries with the top five highest shares of women workers include private education and health services, government, financial activities (banking, real estate, and insurance), other services (from nonprofit and religious organizations to laundry services to care work in private households), and leisure and hospitality.  

Nearly all of these industries have faced severe and persistent pandemic disruptions. And many of them will not recover through the types of economic recovery policy the government has pursued thus far. They will require industry-specific, direct government action and support to adapt and recover.

The 843,000 jobs that were added to the economy this fall returned to a broad range of industries, primarily in the private sector. Amidst this growth in jobs over the past two months, however, was a stark decline of more than 225,000 state and local education jobs. These industries typically have seasonal layoffs during the summer and a rehiring spike from August to October.

And while the pandemic has fundamentally changed education systems and their seasonal employment patterns, local and state education systems across the country collectively shed about 500,000 jobs since October 2019. Private educational services dropped about 120,000 jobs in the same time frame.  

State and local governments, of which public education jobs are just one type, disproportionately employ women and Black workers. In most communities, public education jobs are uniquely reliable and offer benefits and union membership. In many rural areas in particular, local government jobs are often the backbone of the economy. The recent loss of jobs in the education sector has huge consequences for women’s employment prospects in every community. Bringing public education jobs back will require states to increase education budgets and make public policy changes that aid the education system in adapting to the changing world, rather than retreating from it. They will require us to advocate and organize at the local, state and federal levels. 

Up until this point, attention has been focused on consumer demand driving the job recovery. The stimulus checks, business loans and grants in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan were designed to not only help people survive during the height of the pandemic but fuel that recovery. And these investments have been wildly successful, having already brought back 18.1 million of the 22.4 million jobs lost due to the pandemic and preventing what many predicted would be an economic disaster as severe as the Great Depression. But while consumer demand is necessary for economic growth, it won’t bring back jobs in sectors that consumers don’t directly spend money in. 

Public investments must be made in the economy to continue a strong recovery until everyone who wants a job can have one. But an equitable recovery must provide equal job opportunities for men and women of all races alike. This is even more imperative in this recovery, because the pandemic-induced recession had a disproportionate impact on women, Black and brown people and low-income workers. History has demonstrated that the recovery after a recession is where Black and brown and low-income workers will have the greatest opportunities to make employment gains in the U.S. economy. 

Providing equal job opportunities for men and women means making public investments in industries the private sector has not historically played a strong role in and/or has failed—from childcare to education to roads and bridges—in ways that provide job growth opportunities equally to men and women. Given the recent signing of the infrastructure bill, which will boost spending in sectors that traditionally employ men, it is imperative that Congress pass the Build Back Better Act—not only to facilitate women rejoining the labor force but to create jobs in sectors where women comprise a high share of the workforce, like child and elder care.  

But it’s not all on the federal government; state and municipal governments must invest in the public education system, which will also serve the dual purpose of relieving constraints on women’s employment and protecting jobs in a sector where women are the majority of workers.

While women are still struggling to balance jobs, unpaid care work and life, it is important to draw the link to what actual opportunities they face in the job market today and the policy choices that have delivered those opportunities to them. The economy is not guided by an invisible hand, nor does the private sector just perfectly sort everything out so long as profits are high and credit is cheap. Rather, public policy shapes the economy, and we need a gender-justice recovery plan to guarantee an equitable and strong recovery. 

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As Deputy Director of Macroeconomic Analysis at the Roosevelt Institute, Lauren Melodia provides research and data analysis on fiscal and monetary policy, unemployment, and growth to support the think tank’s portfolio of work.