What is driving the continued women’s labor force shortage? 


Jennifer Fernandez

Mother with son working on digital tablet at home.

It’s April 2020. My husband is a healthcare worker staring a pandemic in the face. I’m home, with my then 18-month-old daughter, terrified of what is ahead for our family. Her daycare is closed, my husband is working long hours, and I am juggling my “day job” while working overtime as a parent. My situation is not unique. In fact, during the initial months of our nation experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, many working parents found themselves making difficult, sometimes excruciating, choices for their families. 

Fast forward to 2023. My 18-month-old is now four years old. She also has a one-year-old sister. Daycare and preschools have long been reopened, but many parents, especially moms, are still finding themselves juggling their work and home commitments.  

While the overall unemployment rate in the US hit a low of 3.4% in May 2023, that number masks the nuanced reasons behind what is driving workers to join the workforce in the US. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts an individual as unemployed only if they are actively seeking work. Individuals who may want to join the workforce, or work more hours, but are held back for other reasons—such as family obligations—are not counted among the unemployed.  

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 most recent Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED), 23% of prime work-aged (25-54 years old) respondents were not working in September 2022, the month prior to the survey. When looking at these numbers by gender, we see a large gap between men and women. Of prime work-aged women, 28% were not working, compared to just 18% of prime work-aged men.  

Why do women continue to be absent in the workforce? SHED respondents cited child care and family obligations at a much higher rate compared to men. When asked what contributed to not working within the last month, women and men answered similarly with the exception of family obligations. Seven percent of women noted child care compared to 1% of men, and 10% of women noted family or personal obligations besides child care compared to 5% of men.  

Reasons for not working among prime work-aged adults (by gender)

Did any of the following contribute to you not working last month?MaleFemale
Could not find work6%6%
Child care1%7%
Family and personal obligations besides child care5%10%
Would lose access to unemployment benefits or other government programs3%3%
Concerned about getting COVID-193%5%
Health limitations or disability8%8%
In school or training2%2%
Note: Among adults ages 25 to 54. Respondents could choose more than one reason for their answers
The (unpaid) labor of child care

Further, a third of prime work-aged women living with children under the age of 18 did not work within the last month compared to 12% of men who live with children under 18. Rates were similar for both men and women who did not live with children under 18. The unpaid labor of child care and family obligations continues to drive down women’s ability to enter the labor force.  

In addition to a gender gap, a racial gap is also evident in respondents’ reasons for not being in the labor force. Respondents of color were more likely than their white counterparts to cite family obligations, lack of child care, or both as reasons for not working. Black and Hispanic respondents were also more concerned with getting COVID-19, had a disability or health limitation, or both. 

Reasons for not working among prime work-aged adults (by race)

Did any of the following contribute to you not working last month?WhiteBlackHispanicAsianOther
Could not find work4%10%7%7%14%
Child care3%4%7%6%5%
Family and personal obligations besides child care6%8%11%9%13%
Would lose access to unemployment benefits or other government programs3%4%4%1%6%
Concerned about getting COVID-192%8%7%5%9%
Health limitations or disability7%12%10%1%12%
In school or training1%3%3%2%3%
Note: Values are percentages among adults ages 25 to 54. Respondents could select multiple answers. 

For respondents who did report working during September 2022, gaps remain for men and women in employment. According to the data, women who are working are working fewer hours than men who are working. Women were more likely than men to work a part-time job at 31% compared to men at 17%.  

Full- and part-time work by gender 

Thinking about your main job, do you usually work full time or part time?MaleFemale
Full time (35 or more hours per week)83%69%
Part time (less than 35 hours per week) 17%31%
Note: Among adults who reported doing work for pay or profit in the previous month

Despite the increases in women’s labor force participation post-pandemic, lingering issues around child and family care still inhibit employment opportunities for women. Though we are more than three years out from the start of the pandemic, many parents, including myself, are still juggling the demands of family and work life.  

While my family and I have been able to establish a “new normal” with two working parents and two young children, it’s clear that others have not. Alleviating barriers to high-quality, affordable child and family care, providing flexible work environments, and spreading the care burdens across genders could help close these gaps.  

For more information about employment barriers people face, check out the Fed’s Uneven Outcomes in the Labor Market: Understanding Trends and Identifying Solutions conference in February 2024. 

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