27 Times More Men Than Women Joined the Labor Force Last Month. It’s Time for Systemic Change

Hype over last week’s job numbers largely ignored women’s stagnant job progress. The U.S. needs systemic change—including fair wages and childcare infrastructure—to keep women in the workplace.

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Linda Aviles picks up her children at John G. Whittier School, on Jan. 3, 2022. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Economy defies omicron, adds 467K jobs in January, the Associated Press headline practically screamed on January 5. Good news indeed for a U.S. economy battered by coronavirus since late 2019. But virtually hidden in the hype was some not-so-good news for women: 27 times more men than women joined the labor force last month.

A peek behind the curtain of job numbers shows us why. It’s been clear from the start of the pandemic that women, most notably women of color, lost far more jobs than men. Lack of childcare has been a primary reason. When daycare and schools shut down, it’s a straight-up economic calculation in a two-earner family for the lower earner (guess who?) to quit and take care of kids. In a single-parent household (again, predominately women of color) there’s no decision at all. Not only are daycare and school workers—overwhelmingly female—out of jobs, so are the women further up the ladder who depended on them in order to go to work.

Other jobs dominated by women were also on the forefront of losses—work in the leisure and hospitality sector like restaurants, bars, travel and tourism, lodging and recreation took big hits at the height of the pandemic. And while women make 52.7 percent of that workforce, they gained less than 35 percent of those jobs added in January. The numbers were even bleaker for women in the education and health sector—100 percent of the job gains went to men.

Fortunately, there is some good news for women in the labor market generally. Wages are ticking up, particularly in female-dominated low-wage employment. This year 26 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., will raise their minimum wages, but only California and parts of New York will mandate hourly pay of at least $15.

The private sector is ahead of the government in raising wages that will primarily benefit women workers. Last year marked the first time that the average wage of restaurant and supermarket employee rose above $15 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Other employers have surpassed the $15 benchmark already. Amazon has paid its workforce at least $15 an hour since 2018 and began offering new hires an average of $18 an hour last September. Costco raised its minimum wage to $17 an hour in October. Full-time employees of crafting retailer Hobby Lobby were bumped up to at least $18.50 an hour on January 1. T-Mobile is paying its 75,000-person workforce at least $20 an hour. Bank of America has pledged to pay hourly workers $25 an hour by 2025.

Episodic raises are good, and rising employment is also a positive sign for women. But as the pandemic (hopefully) continues to wane and jobs come back, we need to look deeper and think long-term about fixes for women that won’t disappear when the next superbug comes along. 

Here’s a partial list from the Center for American Progress:

  • Create a robust care infrastructure, including high quality affordable childcare and universal preschool, paid family and medical leave and increased funding for long-term care services.
  • Ensure fair and equal wages and quality benefits by eliminating the tipped minimum wage and raising the federal minimum to $15 per hour, banning the use of salary history in setting pay and targeted hiring programs to reduce the occupational segregation that keeps too many women in traditional “women’s jobs” meaning lower pay and zero benefits.
  • Strengthen and enforce protections against discrimination, harassment and retaliation which are especially important not only to women, but LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities.

Our country can and must do better by the majority of our citizens—women and kids. Until that happens, we will continue to fall behind the rest of the developed world—and more importantly—miss a once-in-a-century opportunity to better the lives of all.

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Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.