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Economic Impact

Economic Impact: The pandemic continues to take its toll on working women, who are dropping out of the workforce

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Women in the workforce have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

They faced steeper job losses than men at the start of the pandemic, and women’s lost employment is recovering more slowly than men’s across the nation.

Between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020, the number of women employed fell 12.7%, compared with a decline of 11.8% for men, according to the Quarterly Workforce Indicators series from the Census Bureau.

As of the second quarter of 2021, female employment has recovered an estimated 62% of jobs lost, five percentage points below the 67% recovered by men.

The larger employment loss for women stems largely from the fact that industries which are more likely to employ women have been hit harder by the pandemic.

The industries which experienced the largest number of job losses for women were in hospitality and food services, health care and social assistance, and retail trade — all industries in which women account for a larger share of employment.

Even within these industries, women bore a larger share of lost jobs. For example, 16.4% of women in retail trade lost their jobs, compared with 13.6% of men. This disparity has continued during the recovery, as women have recovered 59% of jobs lost in retail trade, compared with 73% for men.

These differences do not hold across all industries, however. Women and men experienced job losses and employment has recovered at similar rates in industries such as professional, scientific, and technical services; information technology; real estate and rental and leasing; and finance and insurance.

Reasons that researchers have given for the disparity between genders include women taking on a greater share of childcare, as well as not returning to work in high-contact sectors because of fear of contracting the virus.

There is also significant regional variation in female employment during the recovery.

The largest differences in job losses by gender were in the Northeast, specifically New Hampshire, Maine and New Jersey, as strict and rapid shutdowns limited in-person jobs and as women lost a greater share of jobs in industries like manufacturing and transportation and warehousing that were more resilient in other states.

In contrast, the recovery has been faster for women in states such as Wyoming, North Dakota and Louisiana, where there were fewer pandemic shutdowns.

Virginia ranks 38th among the states in terms of the rate at which women in the workforce have returned to work relative to men.

With some variation between states, women in the workforce have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and women’s employment has recovered more slowly.

Localities and employers should consider this disparity while developing strategies to assist women who want to return to work and encourage those not in the labor force to rejoin.

The reluctance of female workers in particular to return to work is one reason the labor force participation rate may remain low by historical standards in coming years.

The participation rate, which represents the percentage of people either working or looking for work, inched up to 61.8% in November but still remains below the 63.4% in January 2020 prior to the COVID lockdown.

It’s a good sign that more people came back into the labor force and found jobs in November based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, but employers are still having a hard time filling all of their open positions.

Some analysts believe the participation rate will remain below the pre-COVID level because many people retired early and others remain at home for fear of contracting the virus.

Christine Chmura is CEO and chief economist at Chmura Economics & Analytics. She can be reached at (804) 649-3640 or


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