This story has been updated to include an update from the National Women’s Law Center analysis.
“America is back to work,” President Biden said in a speech at the White House on Friday. “America’s job machine is going stronger than ever.”
But not so fast, some economic experts say. According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis, the report is far less rosy when gains are separated out by gender.
Early into the third year of the pandemic, male workers regained all the jobs they had lost since February 2020. But the same could not be said of women: Since February 2020, 1.1 million women who left the labor force have yet to return.
The numbers point to long-standing structural inequities that still make it harder for women to return to work at the same rate as men, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at NWLC. And this will continue to affect women’s workforce participation for months, experts say, even as some aspects of American life return to “normal.”
“There’s a lot of desire to say: It’s done now. We’re back to normal. And we are seeing real progress in job growth,” Martin said. But the persistent gender disparities are “cause for concern,” she added: They have “really demonstrated the need to address our caregiving infrastructure, which has been a huge drag on women’s recovery.”
Although women gained 188,000 jobs in January, to recoup all the jobs lost since the start of the pandemic, they would need to keep gaining jobs at this rate through the end of October.
As Gayle Kaufman, a professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies at Davidson College, sees it, the gender divide reflected in last month’s jobs report reflects a bigger issue with the U.S. economy: “I still don’t think the labor market is built for anyone who wants to have a life outside of work,” Kaufman said.
“While there have always been women, particularly women of color, poor women and immigrant women, in the labor force, the modern workplace developed during a time when our society emphasized separate spheres for women and men,” Kaufman added.
With women shouldering the burdens of domestic life, men were expected to “focus entirely on work,” Kaufman said. And that “ideal worker image” — the person who puts in face time with managers and long hours at their desk — has been hard to shake, even as the “Great Resignation” has spurred employers to rethink the way their companies are structured.
Until January, women hadn’t seen such low labor force participation since the late 1980s or early ’90s, Martin said.
“We’re inching back,” she said of January’s job gains. “But we’re still years behind where we were in terms of women’s ability to work and support their families.”
The NWLC analysis said this divide “likely reflects the uneven caregiving responsibilities men and women have taken on in the wake of the Omicron variant.”
The employment gaps were even worse among Black women and Latinas, according to NWLC’s report. While the overall unemployment rate for women 20 and older hovered at 3.6 percent in January, nearly 5.8 percent of Black women were unemployed, as were 4.9 percent of Latinas. The NWLC added that if the jobs report included those had left the labor force — people who are no longer seeking work — those rates would have been even higher: 5 percent for all women, 7.3 percent for Black women and 5.4 percent for Latinas.
Kaufman attributed January’s “disheartening, but not completely surprising” numbers to a lack of structural support. “This includes lack of paid leave and other family-friendly policies at the same time as there is inadequate child care and uncertainty with schools,” Kaufman said.
Some of these policies — including paid leave and an expanded child tax credit — were temporarily in place during the first two years of the pandemic. But these measures, folded into Biden’s spending plan, the Build Back Better Act, failed to pass the Senate last year.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who did not support the spending package, cited the “mammoth” cost of the bill as well as inflation concerns. He also opposed 12 weeks of paid family leave (in the final version of the bill, this proposal was shaved down to four weeks) and an enhanced child tax credit that didn’t include work or education requirements.
“I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.’ Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward,” Manchin said in a statement in December.
Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights advocacy group, said the jobs report numbers don’t tell the whole story of the economy.
As Washington Post reporting notes, nearly 9 million workers were out sick at the time the Bureau of Labor Statistics was compiling its data, which could have caused some of these sick workers to be counted among the unemployed.
Dixon, citing the census’s Household Pulse Survey for January, conducted in the first 10 days of the month, noted that 12 million people were either not working because they were sick with the coronavirus, taking care of someone who was or afraid of getting sick.
“It’s women who are disproportionately those caregivers,” Dixon said. “And they may not even be showing up in the unemployed numbers because they may just be taking time off.”
Depending on the jobs they have, this could mean taking unpaid time off, Dixon added. While these workers may still have jobs, “losing money is just as crucial as losing a job,” she said.
“Our data is only focused on one point” — employment, Dixon said. “We’re kind of willfully ignoring the other pieces.”
Dixon said that as the year progresses, she will keep an eye on the workers and households who are facing greater instability, especially as pandemic-era benefits have expired. She is particularly concerned about data that show the gig economy is continuing to grow, a sign that people are becoming Uber drivers or delivering meals to help supplement their incomes however they can, she said.
Dixon will also be paying attention to wage growth, which she noted has been eroded by inflation. But, she added, if wages increase across the country, especially in low-wage positions, a $15 minimum wage could become a reality in more places. This would disproportionately impact women workers, particularly Black women and Latinas, she said.
Workers are also banding together to push for better working conditions, Dixon said, which could have a greater impact on women.
While the labor market is friendlier to job seekers now than it has been in years past, NWLC’s Martin cautions that this alone can’t level gaps in employment, pay and working conditions.
“The breakdown in caregiving infrastructure isn’t a problem that can be solved employee by employee, negotiation by negotiation,” Martin said.
This was laid bare during the omicron surge, when some schools and child-care centers would close to prevent the spread of infections, leaving exhausted parents scrambling.
Looking forward, Martin said, “I worry that we will see women really questioning their ability to meet work and family obligations as we have increased uncertainty in what was long a really fragile caregiving infrastructure.”
Dixon says this is one key takeaway from the January jobs report: The enduring gender divide shaping both the pandemic’s economic fallout and its recovery is a deeply ingrained feature of the U.S. labor market. It is still based on a “male breadwinner model,” which she said “is not the model we say we want.”
“We’re seeing that it’s built for men,” Dixon said. “And that it’s not built for women.”