top of page

Three Lessons From the Pandemic About Women in the Workforce

By Justin Wheeler, Manager, Design & Technical Communications

A note on gender: We have chosen to use the terms woman/women and female in this article to remain consistent with the data sources, but recognize these figures may not reflect female-identifying or non-binary individuals.

During a global pandemic when schools were closed and health care workers were at peak demand, women held the majority of occupations in education and health care. Women also shared a disproportionate portion of child care and remote learning responsibilities during the pandemic. Women make up the majority of nurses, grocery store cashiers, daycare workers, and those tasked with keeping our buildings and hospitals germ-free.

Working women are essential to economic growth yet face unique challenges and disadvantages highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and provide critical factors to consider as we work to create economies that work for everyone.

Lesson 1: It’s Clear, Lack of Child Care Capacity is a Limiting Factor to Economic Growth

Many clients we’ve worked with over the past two years have cited a lack of available workers as a challenge to economic growth and development and list talent attraction as a top priority for regional growth. Yet, in many of the communities in which we’ve worked, we’ve found the existing capacity of child care centers does not meet current demand. This problem will only be exacerbated for workers and employers if the number of children in these communities increases.

For example, in Allegheny County, PA, there were just over 36,210 licensed child care slots for the 44,850 children who needed them before the pandemic. In March of 2021, that number dropped to just over 20,000 leaving more than 24,810 children and their parents without access to licensed child care services.

Source: Sources: PA Partnerships for Children & PA Department of Human Services with Trying Together March updates & 4E analysis. Numbers are estimates.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing closures of schools and daycare centers forced many women from the workforce to assume child care responsibilities. In September of 2020, the share of women employed and at work was the lowest it had been since 1985. In January 2021, the US Census Bureau counted 10 million mothers, or one-third of all mothers living with school-aged children, as not actively working.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “This decline in labor force participation among parents, especially mothers, likely reflects pandemic-related job losses and the shift of many schools to distance learning and the temporary closure of many daycare facilities during the pandemic.”

The pandemic served as a model for what the world looks like without the reliable education and child care resources that many working families, especially working mothers, require. Widespread unemployment, reduced household income, an increased need for public assistance, and a rise in child food insecurity are just a few of the negative impacts experienced by disruptions in access to child care during the pandemic.

Lesson 2: Remote Work is a Mixed Bag for Women

As we entered year two of the pandemic, the ‘Great Resignation’ further disrupted the workforce leaving many organizations scrambling to fill positions and retain workers. Ninety-one percent of respondents to an October 2021 Gallup poll of workers who moved at least partially to remote work during the pandemic indicated they would like to continue working remotely post-pandemic. Nearly half of these employees indicated that they would be “likely” or “extremely likely” to change jobs if they lost their remote work option.

According to a survey conducted last summer by the non-profit Catalyst, women with child care responsibilities who have remote-work access were 32 percent more likely to remain in the workforce than those without a remote-work option. The same study showed respondents across all categories were 30 percent less likely to look for another job in the next year if able to stay remote.

Similarly, a survey conducted by the Society for HR Management found that 34 percent of female-identifying respondents agreed that remote work allowed them to remain in the workforce. The same study indicated that women felt they were more productive and that their performance had improved due to remote work. Still, that remote work would provide them with fewer opportunities for networking and advancement.

While remote work was a godsend for parents at the height of the pandemic, women took on a disproportionate share of child care responsibilities. A survey of 2,500 working parents conducted between August and September of 2020 found that eighty percent of working mothers assumed the primary responsibility for managing their child’s remote learning, and women were three times more likely than men to have to take time off of work or flex their hours to accommodate virtual learning and household responsibilities.

Most women, however, don’t have a choice. Forty-eight percent of occupations where women make up half or more of the workforce are jobs that would not be able to be done entirely or even partially remote, meaning the majority of women are unlikely to reap the benefits of remote work.

Top 20 Female-Majority Occupations, United Stated (2019)

Highlighted rows are those occupations that are not able to be performed remotely full-time

  1. Preschool and kindergarten teachers

  2. Executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants

  3. Child care workers

  4. Secretaries and administrative assistants, except legal, medical, and executive

  5. Dental assistants

  6. Medical records specialists

  7. Receptionists and information clerks

  8. Medical assistants

  9. Dietitians and nutritionists

  10. Hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists

  11. Nursing assistants

  12. Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses

  13. Nurse practitioners

  14. Home health aides

  15. Veterinary technologists and technicians

  16. Occupational therapists

  17. Payroll and timekeeping clerks

  18. Registered nurses

  19. Billing and posting clerks

Lesson 3: Women are Essential Workers, But Aren’t Treated as Such

Women make up a disproportionate portion of health care, child care, and eldercare occupations. Nearly all of the occupations where women make up the majority of the workforce meet the US Homeland Security’s guidance as being “Essential to Critical Infrastructure” issued during the pandemic; and those that don’t, such as hairdressers and bank tellers we consider “essential” to a normally functioning society.

Yet, as essential as they are, women hold a substantial portion of service, clerical, and other positions that are vulnerable to automation and are 58% more likely to lose their job to automation than men.

Women of every race and education level are paid less than men. The wage gap, the difference between the median hourly wage women earn vs. men, has held steady for the past 15 years, with women making 84 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Though women have made great strides in leadership and executive positions, the picture for female managers is mixed with more women holding management positions in health care and education fields and few positions in tech sectors such as software development and computer engineering.

Key Takeaways

We need to promote child care access as economic development.

  • Communicate the value and ROI on a regional scale through data and mapping

  • Publish information about incentives and the spectrum of options available for employers looking to support child care solutions which may include offering child care stipends, investment in learning centers, and expansion of employer-sponsored after-school programs

  • Craft and promote local government policies that may be beneficial to child care efforts when planning with municipalities

Make remote work a permanent option and make it work better for everyone.

  • Make flexible schedules the ‘new normal’ for in-person and remote workers. Workers with and without caregiving responsibilities may wish to avoid a busy morning commute or are more productive outside of “normal” operating hours.

  • Create opportunities for virtual networking, and offer in-person events for remote employees such as periodic retreats.

  • Rethink office structures to move from assigned to shared spaces and implement policies and infrastructure for hybrid work.

  • Implement changes equitably. Workers may feel disenfranchised if one class of employees is permitted to work remotely but not others.

Employers need to do more to overcome historic imbalances if they want to attract and retain female employees.

  • Close the wage gap. The Equal Pay Act has been the law for more than 50 years, yet the wage gap persists. Employers should audit employee salaries to ensure employees who are performing the same job receive the same pay and ensure payscales and raises don’t “grandfather in” wage disparities.

  • Offer robust and equitable parental leave to ensure women can return to the workforce and aren’t disproportionately impacted by the decision to raise a family.

  • In addition to fixing the capacity issue, employers can help employees afford child care by offering employer-sponsored child care through direct payments or reimbursement for child care expenses.

  • Ensure women are proportionately represented at all levels of your organization, including middle and senior management.

  • See lessons 1 and 2 to improve working conditions and work/life balance for women and working mothers.


bottom of page