More women left the work force in September than the US economy added jobs

Woman sitting on the floor in an office wearing a mask
  • In September, women left the labor force in high numbers, meaning they weren’t actively looking for work or employed.
  • According to the latest jobs report, 309,000 women ages 20 and over left the labor force last month.
  • Experts say that’s driven by lack of accessible childcare and the pandemic.

The Delta variant, a chaotic back-to-school season, and childcare issues have all led to yet another dismal month for women’s employment. In September, hundreds of thousands of women dropped out of the labor force completely last month, while men came back.

The US gained 194,000 nonfarm payroll jobs last month, below the estimate of 500,000. Women lost 26,000 jobs in September, according to the establishment survey of businesses run by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If you look in the economy, women are not coming back into the workforce in as strong of a way as we would want, or as the economy needs in order to continue to expand,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Insider. “And it’s clear that the number one reason for that is that women are still struggling to find high quality, stable, affordable childcare.”

As seen in the below chart, while 182,000 men aged 20 and over entered the labor force in September, 309,000 women aged 20 and over left the labor force. That means that they weren’t working or actively looking for work.


Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women's Law Center, told Insider that she's not surprised by this number, and in fact thought it could have been even higher.

Tucker said with many schools not providing a remote learning option and concerns about the Delta variant, "that there were going to be another wave of labor force dropouts." She said it came as "no surprise that that was going to fall to women's shoulders to take on."

In fact, September marked the biggest drop of labor force participation for women this year - and the National Women's Law Center notes that this is the biggest drop since September 2020.

The following chart shows just how much labor force participation differs between men and women:


Betsey Stevenson, a former top economist for President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter that "Women's employment growth has driven every recovery and its women's employment growth that has nearly ground to a halt and has slowed our recovery."

This can be seen when looking at the Great Recession, where women returned to pre-crisis employment levels earlier than men. The following chart shows what the employment recovery looks like for men and women so far during the pandemic and how it compares to recovery from the Great Recession:


Women's employment is 3.59% below its level in February 2020. Men's employment isn't as far below, at only 2.82% below where it was before the pandemic.

Investing in childcare and paid leave could help ease the situation

Tucker said there are a few things that the US and employers can do to support getting women - and parents, broadly - into the labor force. This includes investing in childcare infrastructure, giving all parents access to paid leave, and "strengthen workplace protections."

"We need to make it so that women can afford to go back to work," Tucker said. "We need to raise the minimum wage. We need to put in job protections, we need to pave the path for unions so that these jobs are good quality jobs."

Some good news is that child day care services did add 17,800 jobs in September, although it's still 10.4% below pre-pandemic levels. But a lot of childcare still remains inaccessible.

"It's expensive, and a lot of women can't afford it," Raimondo said. "That really holds them back from fully participating in the labor force. They don't take on all the hours. They don't work full time. They don't go for promotions and it's a huge drag on the economy."

As Tucker succinctly put it: "If you're not making enough to cover your childcare costs, then you're probably not going to go back to work."