American women are leading the post-pandemic US jobs recovery

The labor market could grow even stronger with more pro-women economic policies

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The percentage of American women in their prime working years employed or looking for work reached an all-time-high in May, while prime-age men are not yet participating in the labor force at their pre-pandemic levels, according to new data from the US Labor Department.

With limited access to childcare, 20 million American women left the workforce at the beginning of the pandemic, in many cases to oversee the remote education of their kids. Expanded unemployment insurance and a child tax credit helped many households get by financially, but the disruption threatened to make American women’s careers even more non-linear than they already were.


The sudden disappearance of women from the workforce was called a “she-cession” by US economists as they raised concerns about a widening gender gap in wages and employment opportunities for women.

The rapid recovery now in women’s employment shows how creating a tight labor market—a jobs market where openings are plentiful and workers can switch out of bad jobs easily—can help create a more equitable economy.


A dramatic difference in trends for women and men

The post-pandemic trend is an acceleration of women entering the workforce very quickly since the 1960s.

“It’s been basically a doubling over a half century of the share of women who are working,” said Kathryn Edwards, a labor economist at the Rand Corp, in a Twitter spaces. “For men, it’s the opposite story. There’s no peak for them to recover, because their labor force participation has been declining almost as long as we’ve been keeping track of the data.”

The exciting part of this data is that the US has a great deal of policy opportunities that could put more women into the workforce and improve the labor supply, Edwards added.


But the gains for women are not without headwinds. With abortion restrictions passing in states around the country after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, expensive childcare, domestic abuse, and the career penalties of pregnancy itself may keep more women from working.

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