21 ways the US can bring women back into the workforce

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Since February 2020, 2.3 million women have left the US workforce, meaning they’re neither looking for a job nor working (for pay; they’re doing plenty of unpaid work). According to the National Women’s Law Center, women’s workforce participation dropped in January to its lowest level since 1987. The employment crisis has disproportionately affected Black and Latina women, who are most likely to work in the hardest hit industries, and least likely to have access to good, affordable childcare. Those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs are doing a lot more housework and parenting than men, on average, and we’re more likely to be burned out and considering quitting.

On March 10, the same day Congress approved the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, US Senator Amy Klobuchar joined me in our first Make Business Better event to talk about how the plan will lift children out of poverty and help women return to work, as well as other policy solutions she’s working on. I also talked with leaders who started organizations—one nonprofit and one tech start-up—that are tackling different pieces of the problem in innovative ways. Tami Forman is executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit that works with companies to create “returnships” to ease the transition back to work for women (and men) who have taken time off for caregiving. Chris Bennett is co-founder and CEO of Wonderschool, a platform that supports childcare professionals in starting and running their own programs and also helps parents find care for their children.

If you had to pick one solution to prioritize over everything else governments and companies could do to bring women back to the workforce, what would it be? We asked everyone who attended the event, and a majority argued for affordable, quality childcare. Here are the other specific solutions that our panelists proposed.

Senator Amy Klobuchar

One Quartz reader who attended the event asked for a list of all the bills Senator Klobuchar mentioned, so we’ve included links to all of those here.

  • Expanded tax credits for families: “The American Rescue Plan increases the child tax credit to $3600 for children under six and $3000 for children 17 and under. And it also makes the credit fully refundable, so it will help even families with the lowest incomes. It could reduce, are you ready for this, child poverty in the US by half, which is why many are rightly pointing out this is one of the most significant anti-poverty bills in our country’s history.”
  • The Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, “to address a national shortage of childcare providers and safety at childcare facilities by providing grants for states to train child care workers and build or renovate childcare facilities in areas facing child care shortages”
  • The Covid-19 Mental Health Research Act, to fund research on the mental health consequences of the pandemic.
  • The Child Care for Working Families Act, “which would cap the amount families pay out of pocket for childcare”
  • “A federal tax credit to assist with the costs for caring for an aging family member at home.”
  • “Investing in cures for things like Alzheimer’s, which is really one of the most expensive diseases out there.”
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act
  • A $15 minimum wage

Tami Forman

  • Returnships, which are “generally about a two to six month program, depending on the company they’re paid. They are an opportunity for that person to get back into the workforce, to get new skills, to show the skills they have are still quite relevant.”
  • Companies need to “do the work internally to make the program successful. And that doesn’t have to mean a lot of bells and whistles. It doesn’t even have to be in formal training. I mean, that’s great when companies offer it, but it’s really about being intentional with your recruiters and your hiring managers, having conversations about how are we going to evaluate this talent? How are we going to look at someone’s skills outside the workforce? How are we going to think about the bias we might have about where we’ve taken time off people who have taken time off?”
  • “There just need to be more companies running these programs. We’ve worked with about 80. We track, you know, probably a couple hundred companies that we know of that have ever run a returnship program in the history of the world…That’s just not a lot compared to how many companies there are in America. So it’s not so much like one company needs to take thousands of people. If every company opened up a few slots, boom, we’d be there.”
  • Flexible schedules for everyone, not just mothers.
  • “Obviously a key part of all of this is that caregivers can’t go back to work unless they have childcare.”
  • “Create a place where that person coming back into the workforce can have a conversation about like, Hey, I’m having trouble finding childcare. Hey, I’m having trouble with the after school thing. Hey, everybody was excited the first week, but nobody’s picked up a dish in a week and a half.

Chris Bennett

  • More small, home-based childcare centers, which have proven to be more resilient than larger programs during the pandemic.
  • More licensed centers in childcare deserts where there are no more than one licensed childcare spot for every three children under five.
  • State governments need to “shore up child care in their state and eventually create more childcare programs in their state.”
  • “Micro schools” that “ serve children over the age of five and support distance learning,” as well as expanding existing programs to serve older children after school.
  • Give women training and support as they start their own childcare businesses, including helping them navigate the tension that can arise when they out-earn their partners. “There’s a lot of ingrained social dynamics that we’ve had to discover and and overcome to test to empower women in starting these businesses.”
  • “Childcare should just be free for everyone and it should be high quality for everyone. We fund the K-12 system, but we don’t fund the childcare system adequately. A change like that could be monumental for America.”