Supporting women and work-life balance in today’s economy


Jennifer Fernandez

Little girl embracing her mom in her home office.

The struggle for work-life balance comes as no surprise to many women. I noted this tension in a previous article, and it was discussed at the recent Uneven Outcomes in the Labor Market conference. To further understand the issues working women face, I spoke with four women who participated in the Aspen Institute’s Women in the Economy survey about their experiences balancing work, family, and financial challenges. These four women (Joanne, Breanna, Yadilena, and Nicole) come from different walks of life, careers, and generations, but shared similar financial challenges and ideas about how the economy might work better for women.1

The significant challenge of paying for housing

Housing costs emerged as the prevailing financial issue these women face. Homeownership seemed a pipe dream for many, as rents consumed a considerable portion of their income. This is consistent with data from the 2022 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED).

One way to counteract high rents is to have a roommate. Joanne, a college student at UC Berkeley, had a roommate sleeping in her living room to make rent more affordable for them both. On the contrary, Breanna, who worked at an adult day care facility in Florida, was fortunate to find an affordable place to rent. She was wary of moving to a larger home, though, because she would need to find a roommate to manage the rent increase—not an ideal situation for a single mother of two. 

During the pandemic, women left the labor force at a slightly higher rate than men and were slower to return to work, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The lingering effects of the pandemic can still be found in the numbers three years later.  

According to the SHED, 64 percent of renters reported their housing costs rising in the year prior. Yadilena, a recent graduate of UCLA and mother to a three-year-old, and her partner fortunately were able to secure a rent-controlled apartment for their family. While their rent was covered, they had to budget carefully for other rising expenses, such as food.

Nicole, another of the women I spoke with who lives in Los Angeles, covers her housing costs using her permanent disability benefits. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Nicole requires 24-hour assistance but continues to live in her own apartment. While she recently finished a degree in cyber security, Nicole was concerned about losing benefits if her income reached a certain amount. She had to carefully balance her finances to avoid losing the benefits she needed to cover costly and critical aspects of her care, such as her in-home caretakers and medical devices.

After graduating, Yadilena began working at a nonprofit and found herself in a similar dilemma. She worried about maintaining her healthcare benefits while working after receiving a notice that her household income may exceed eligibility limits.

Many others also find themselves in situations like Nicole and Yadilena’s, grappling with what’s known as the ‘benefits cliff.’ Earning even slightly more than the eligibility threshold for public assistance programs can leave working people with limited choices for economic mobility. As noted by research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, benefits cliffs create barriers to economic self-sufficiency.

The importance of job flexibility

What would improve economic conditions for women in these situations? According to the women I spoke with, job flexibility, equal pay, along with financial education and the importance of mentoring were the highest priorities. For example, Yadilena works from home and has flexibility in her work environment, which accommodates her other responsibilities like taking her child to appointments. Her partner works outside the home but works a later shift, so they can both caretake without having to pay for additional childcare, an expense outside of their budget.  

According to the SHED, 19 percent of respondents worked from home entirely, and 20 percent worked from home at least part of the time. SHED survey respondents said they value work flexibility, with 88 percent of respondents preferring to work from home for better work-life balance. Twenty-eight percent of people who work at least part-time from home responded that they would likely look for another job if they had to return to the office each day. 

“We are often told ‘it takes a village,’ but we find ourselves without our village.” — Nicole, Women in the Economy survey participant

Yadilena noted that she took her job for its flexibility, even though it paid slightly less than other options available to her. Respondents to the Federal Reserve’s Worker Voices study also noted that work flexibility was a priority for them, with nearly all participants agreeing that the COVID-19 pandemic shifted their priorities towards a better work-life balance.

The wage gap for women continues to widen

The women I interviewed also mentioned that pay discrepancies were a troubling economic issue in their lives. Pew, a national think tank which informs the public on policy issues and trends, indicated a slow-closing gender pay gap, with women earning eighty-two cents for every dollar earned by a man. Recent research from the Federal Reserve found that women’s labor force participation drops in the summer, while the participation rate for men remains constant. The root cause of these declines are summer breaks in school and childcare. Women also tend to take on most childcare and household tasks, leading to less availability for work and a decline in earnings.

Conversely, women tend to shoulder higher rates of both paid and unpaid caregiving work. Paid caregivers like adult day care center worker Breanna are disproportionately women of color and among the lowest paid of the healthcare workforce. The low pay contributes to a high turnover rate – 65 percent annually – which in turn affects those who need care, like Nicole. She regularly finds herself with new caregivers and has to adjust to the difficulties of inconsistent staff. She is an advocate for higher pay in the caretaking industry and believes it will lead to both better job retention for caregivers and more consistent care for those who need it.

When thinking about solutions to improve the economic outcomes for women, college student Joanne mentioned the importance of her financial education. While still a student in high school, she participated in a program called MyPath to learn wealth building strategies while earning a small stipend. She found that what she learned in the program gave her an edge over peers who did not have formal financial education.

Fed resources, including the Federal Reserve Education Program, the Philadelphia Fed’s K-12, and the St. Louis Fed’s Econ Lowdown program, can provide similarly valuable building blocks of financial education. Targeted, culturally competent programs such as the St. Louis Fed’s Native Economic and Financial Education Empowerment (NEFEE) offer additional financial education resources for historically underserved populations.

The importance of community to support women

Lastly, Nicole mentioned the importance of women supporting women and building community. “We are often told it ‘takes a village,’ but we find ourselves without our village.” Mentorship and peer support can be strong stepping stones for success – 75 percent of executives have credited mentors as playing a vital role in their career advancement.

From my own experience, the “village” is also fundamental to maintaining work-life balance through times of uncertainty. I’ve valued having flexibility in my work and others to lean on when dealing with life’s curveballs. Such support is essential to the success of women – especially early in their careers.

As noted in a past Federal Reserve conference on gender and the economy, early financial stability can help create a strong foundation toward retirement savings and future wealth, and each stage in a person’s individual lifecycle comes with its own financial challenges and opportunities. It was clear that the women I spoke with were at different stages in their lives and working through issues related to those stages. Joanne has not started her career but is laying the groundwork for her financial education. Yadilena is entering the workforce and Breanna is raising her family and caretaking full-time, while Nicole continues to advocate for people with disabilities like herself. Each of these women is dedicated to lifting up their communities and families. Support and community for women at each stage of their economic lifecycle benefits them, and the economy as a whole.


[1] Selection of interview participants were arranged through the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program. Participants affirmed the use of their first names for the interviews. The Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve System, and Fed Communities did not provide any financial support to the women for their interviews. 

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