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McKenzie Robinson | SBJ

Women’s Workforce Participation Reaches 35-Year Low

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: Demographic Shifts: Working women embrace lifestyle change in pandemic

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In the wake of a pandemic that forced schools to close their doors and shifted learning to the home, it should come as no surprise that many people had to leave the workplace, either temporarily or permanently.

What may be a surprise is that January figures showed women’s labor force participation rate – the percent of adult women who are either working or looking for work – at 57%, the lowest level in the United States since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Economists dubbed pandemic-related employment losses as a “she-cession,” as numerous jobs were lost in women-dominated industries, like service and hospitality, according to the NWLC.

Katie Gilbert, who researches women’s issues and teaches literature and women’s studies at Drury University, said there are many reasons women have been the ones leaving the workforce during coronavirus.

“Women are traditionally overtasked with care,” she said. “One of the reasons women tend to be the ones to leave their jobs has to do with gender inequality in care work.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women and men entered the pandemic in February 2020 roughly even in their unemployment numbers. In fact, in early 2020, BLS numbers had women holding slightly more jobs than men for only the second time in history. Unemployment for women reached a peak of 15.8% – more than 2% above men – in April 2020. But by the end of 2020, women lost 5.4 million jobs compared with 4.4 million for men, BLS/Census data show.

At back-to-school time in September, 80% of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce were women, and by December, women accounted for all of the nation’s net job losses – while men had some net gains in employment.

Gilbert thinks there may be an opportunity for some positive change when the dust from COVID-19 clears.

“We need to actually restructure and revalue everything,” she said, citing work-from-home policies, flex time, affordability of child care, pay equity and elderly care. “We need to see that care work as valuable in our society in such a way that structures allow for time and resources.

“If I were in charge of an organization right now, I would send out a survey to my employees and ask them, ‘How has COVID affected your ability to work and take care of children at the same time?’” she said. “I’d also ask, ‘What resources can we offer to parents to help them through this emergency?’”

Gilbert noted that the situation is not only difficult for current members of the workforce, but future ones, too. “College students are aware of these issues, and they’re also concerned,” she said. “They’re about to enter a workforce where change has not happened at a pace that it should have.”

The 2021 Economic Growth Survey reveals talent acquisition and skilled workforce are top issues for area business leaders, following only the need to attract new customers.

“We need to think about the long-term loss,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert says companies can’t keep doing business as usual.

“Women are going to be stretched to the breaking point,” she said.

Different choices
In Emily Givens’ former role as executive director of the Lost & Found Grief Center, which helps children, young adults and their families through the loss of loved ones, the work she was doing gave her plenty of food for thought about what’s important in life.

Givens’ son has one more year in high school, and she has daughters going into 10th and seventh grades.

She recalled that she used to race in from work and snap her fingers to direct kids toward water bottles and shoes before dashing off to sports practices, maybe grabbing fast food on the way.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “I had a moment when I thought, maybe I just need to slow down, recalibrate my brain, have a little more family time.”

Givens said that in the spring of 2020, she began working from home three days a week.

“Once I was home, I realized that I enjoyed being able to put dinner on the table at night. I had time to get dinner ready instead of being at the office until 5 or 6,” she said.

“It wasn’t that I was so mentally worn out due to COVID; it showed me that there is another way I could live my life, being at home more, being around my kids more.”

Katie Renkoski was working as a paraprofessional for the Republic School District when COVID hit. She said she and her family wanted to be very careful when it came to their health, especially since her husband, Jim, is in a high-risk category.

She had worked with kids in K-5 for about four years.

“I decided why don’t I just take on homeschooling our children,” she said.

While a lot of parents found themselves having to take over their children’s day-to-day schooling during stay-at-home orders and school building closures, Renkoski went the extra step and arranged curriculum for a formal homeschooling plan for her daughter, a third-grader, and her son, who was in sixth.

Now that her children are back in school, Renkoski has chosen to enroll herself back in school. She plans to enter Ozarks Technical Community College’s occupational therapy assistant program.

It’s a place she wouldn’t have pictured herself being if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.

“A lot of people got to do some soul-searching – they had the time to do that,” she said.

Sarah Watson was working in business development at Southern Bank when, toward the beginning of the pandemic, her position was eliminated.

Immediately, she put together a plan and began an ecommerce business selling full-spectrum hemp and nutritional health products from a company called Q Sciences.

She said she enjoys working in an industry that provides personal growth.

“You go from a position where you’re released from a company and you kind of have some mental anguish there, I would say,” she said. “You just don’t realize how down on yourself you look sometimes.”

Watson said she has learned the joy and satisfaction of working for herself.

“Being able to work for yourself, you find direction and passion and know that whatever you’re putting in actually comes back on you,” she said. “If you put in all the effort, you get the rewards. If you don’t, you don’t.”

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