Women saw a big increase in jobs in March but there’s still a long way to go

Waitress
  • Women gained 315,000 jobs in March, about half of men’s monthly employment gain.
  • NWLC wrote it would take roughly 15 months to get back to women’s pre-pandemic employment at this rate.
  • Measures like raising the minimum wage and implementing universal childcare could help.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The March jobs report brought something relatively new to the story of pandemic unemployment: a touch of optimism.

Based on the report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 916,000 nonfarm payroll jobs were added. That is the highest monthly gain so far this year. If the US continues to add jobs each month at that rate, employment can reach February 2020 levels in just around 10 months.

But, as always, there’s more to the story, especially when it comes to one group who’s continually been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic’s economic devastation: women.

Women’s nonfarm payroll employment increased by 315,000 last month while men saw a gain of 601,000 jobs according to the National Women’s Law Center‘s calculation. The NWLC wrote that this rate translates to taking about 15 months to get women’s employment back to February 2020’s level of 76.3 million. For men, it will take a little over six months.

“At this point we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go,” Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC’s director of research, told Insider.

Still, there was a large increase in the net number of women who are at least 20 years old entering the labor force in March. However, March was another month of men exiting the labor force. The following chart highlights the monthly change in civilian labor force participation for men and women from the past several months:

Based on the chart, 495,000 women age 20 and over joined the labor force last month. This is much higher than the 26,000 that entered the labor force in February 2021. On the other hand, 117,000 men age 20 and over left the labor force last month, almost 40,000 higher than the 78,000 men who left a month earlier.

One concern, however, is the quality of the jobs that those women are taking, especially with a surge in leisure and hospitality employment.

“I think there’s a lot of people right now who are taking anything they can get,” Tucker said. Women moving into those jobs could lead to the wage gap widening later on.

With the uptick in women entering the labor force, their labor force participation rate has also slightly increased. The rate for women 20 years and over was 57.4% in March, 0.4 percentage points higher than February. Men’s rate continues to be much higher than women, although the rate ticked down by 0.1 percentage points to 69.5%. The following chart highlights the labor force participation rate for men and women over the past year:

Both women’s and men’s unemployment rates have declined from their pandemic peaks in April 2020 but are still higher than their pre-pandemic rates. The gap between the unemployment rates has narrowed and is now only a difference of 0.1 percentage point for people who are at least 20 years old. The following chart highlights the unemployment rate for men and women over the course of the pandemic:

“If we added all of the 1.8 million women who’ve dropped out of the labor force and added them to the ranks of the unemployed, women’s unemployment rate would have been 8% and men’s would have been 8% too – if we count the millions of men who’ve dropped out,” Tucker said.

She added: “Black women would have been 13.4%, and Latinas would have been 11.1%. These are crisis levels. We are, I think, still in a crisis here.”

Tucker said that measures like raising the minimum wage and implementing universal childcare will be key in creating a more equitable recovery.

“You can’t go to work if you don’t have a road to get there. You can’t go to work if you don’t have a safe place for your kid. Right. These are like synonymous things. Childcare is infrastructure and we need to treat it that way.”

A tale of two pandemics, even for women

The economic impact on women has also been bifurcated, depending on what profession they’re in, according to Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage. It’s not just a story of employment, or lack thereof.

“It’s important to understand that for low wage workers, it’s less of a a loss in terms of employment and jobs and more of an income loss,” Jayaraman said.

She said that conditions for workers in those jobs have been worsening, all while risk increases. Recent research from One Fair Wage found that, during the pandemic, female tipped workers reported tips were down, but harassment was up.

And so the recovery numbers – especially in the restaurant sector – may not tell the whole story. While jobs may be recovering there, with funding pouring in from the American Rescue Plan, the devastation for women working in the industry is “incomprehensible.”

On a policy level, the top priority should be raising the minimum wage, according to Jayaraman; 59% of the workers who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage are women.

“Last year, we started a relief fund for service workers; 240,000 workers applied for relief. And I can’t tell you the number of women waitresses who wrote to us and said, ‘I can no longer feed my children. The lines are too long at the food banks. I am now resorting to stealing food because I have no choice,'”Jayaraman said.

“Some of them wrote and said, ‘I can’t pay the electricity bill, so we don’t know how much longer we can be in touch with you.'”