The Retired Investor: Working Mothers Hit Prepandemic High
Women with young children have hit their stride in America's workforce. The ability to work remotely has given these women the flexibility to make money while raising children.
A new report in June 2023 by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution indicated that prime-age women (ages 25 through 54) had a labor force participation rate of 77.8 percent.
What was even more surprising was that women whose youngest child is under the age of 5 are the main locomotive behind this upward trend. Prepandemic, this group's participation in the workforce peaked at 68.9 percent but has now jumped to 70.4 percent. No other category of women has surpassed their prepandemic level thus far.
This is a far cry from the predicament women faced during the pandemic-induced shutdown of schools and the inability to find day-care services. At that time, working women were forced to choose between taking care of the kids or employment. Those who tried to do both, like my daughter, were under enormous pressure on both ends.
How bad did it get? In 2020, about 113 million women aged 25-54 with partners and small children were out of the workforce, according to the International Labor Federation. In that year, more than 2 million mothers left the labor force. That compares to 13 million males out of work.
Two factors conspired to get these women back in the workforce. The supply/demand imbalance of workers in the U.S. has resulted in the present-day historically tight labor market. Possibly even more important was the introduction of remote work. More research needs to be done, but one idea is that women who were highly educated and allowed more flexibility to work remotely rejoined the labor force. For those like my daughter who works in a high-level, high-demand management job in the retail sector, adding remote flexibility allowed her to retain her stressful job and care for her 8- and 11-year-old children.
The ability to tend to a child's needs, whether to pick up or drop off from school, make a doctor's appointment during work hours, or handle playdates during the summer allows mothers to juggle both jobs. If that is not possible, many moms are forced to throw in the towel on jobs like my daughter's and either quit or go part time.
There does seem to be a cut-off point where women with very young children remain less likely to work than women with older kids or no kids. Normally, childbirth is when a woman's career path changes in the U.S., which impacts the rest of their economic life. It usually limits income, job selection, promotions, and fringe benefits.
For decades, women advocates have lobbied for more flexibility in the workplace that would allow women with children to remain in the workforce. COVID-19 and the subsequent remote work policies could have major implications for women and their future ability to hold careers and all that comes with it.
But there are still bumps in the road for working women. Indeed, the job search company, surveyed more than 1,000 stay-at-home moms, who re-entered the workforce only to find a good deal of bias in their job search. About 73 percent reported some bias due to the employment gap on their resumes. Many found difficulty in obtaining a flexible position.
Unfortunately, as the risk of contagion recedes, an increasing number of employers (mostly males) are clamping down on remote work. Many large companies are insisting on at least three days in the office per week. Employees are pushing back, but if the labor market weakens, workers may not have the leverage to resist the curtailment of remote work, at least for now. Longer-term, however, the aging of American workers should mean that labor shortages will continue and with it, remote work. That would be a big plus for women.