More than 2 million women left the workforce in 2020. Why it matters and what happens next

Women's careers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

December 31, 2020, 4:06 AM

When the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns struck the United States in March, Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and a mom of two, saw the impact play out in her own life, as well as the lives of her employees, who are predominantly women and working moms.

"I saw the struggle play out in their living rooms and in my living room where we're trying to not dampen our dreams, but we have to log our kids onto Zoom at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock," Saujani told "Good Morning America." "We're doing laundry in between calls. We're making breakfast, lunch and dinner. We are constantly caretaking and mothering."

"We're teachers, we're counselors, we're nurses, we're cleaners, we're nannies, and no one ever asked us," Saujani said of the added roles working moms took on when schools switched to virtual learning and offices went remote. "It wasn't even a choice."

Saujani said with no stimulus check for working moms, no help with child care and seemingly little consideration for moms' careers with school closings, she quickly saw that the invisible work done by mothers was not valued, saying, "I mean that literally, that our labor has no economic value whatsoever."

The recession brought on by the pandemic has been called the "shecession" by economic experts because of the disproportionate impact it has had on women, both in jobs lost and in women who have left their jobs because of caretaking duties.

In November alone, 10,000 women ages 20 and over left the labor force, adding to the more than 2 million women who have left the labor force since February, meaning they are neither working nor looking for work, according to the National Women's Law Center, a policy-focused organization that fights for gender justice.

Since February, women have lost over 5 million net jobs, and account for nearly 54% of overall net job losses since the start of the crisis. Men have lost a net 4.5 million jobs between February and November, making up 46% of total job losses, according to the NWLC.

And while the labor force participation rate for men is about 2.6 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level, the participation rate for women is 4 percentage points lower, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.

"The Great Recession [of 2008] was really opposite from this recession in that it was a production recession and we saw a lot of men's jobs lost, but the jobs came back really quickly," said Jasmine Tucker, director of research for the NWLC. "This recession, women have borne the brunt and I think some of those jobs are permanently lost."

Of the 12.1 million women's jobs lost between February and April, more than 2 in 5 have not yet returned, according to the NWLC.

"We're still in a real crisis here," said Tucker.

What happens when women leave the workforce?

At the start of 2020, women had just marked a historic achievement when, for the first time in a decade, they surpassed men with the number of U.S. jobs held, according to the Department of Labor.

As 2021 begins, millions of women will still be facing unemployment, either because they were laid off or because they chose, under the pressure of the pandemic, to take time off from their careers.

"I can't tell you how many moms I know that have left their jobs, who are on food stamps, that have moved in with their parents, that have said no to that extra promotion, those extra opportunities and extra hours, have taken setbacks in their careers," said Saujani. "This pandemic has set us back as women and we're going to feel the effects of that for generations to come unless we do something about it."

Women are historically tasked with carrying the cognitive labor for household activities -- which now includes homeschooling for most parents -- and women already face a gender pay gap where they earn around 80 cents for each dollar their male coworkers make. When household and child care duties increase, as they have during the pandemic, it's often the woman in opposite-sex couples who takes on the added burden -- which some justify because she is bringing less money into the household.

During the pandemic, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men of the same age group to not be working due to child care demands, according to research from the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve.

In addition, women have long been relegated to service sector jobs, like hospitality, food services and retail -- industries that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, data shows. In those jobs, women also face lower wages, which sets them up for economic uncertainty during a downturn, experts say.

ABC’s Andrew Dymburt on the extensive financial problems brewing for America’s working women across the country.
ABC’s Andrew Dymburt on the extensive financial problems brewing for America’s working women across the country.

Working moms total about 23.5 million in the U.S., or nearly one-third of all employed women, according to Census data shared in May.

"Women are half of the economy and half of the workforce, so [when] women exit the workforce there's a devastating ripple effect on businesses, lost productivity and the economy," said C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a women-focused think tank. "And also for women, it directly impacts their career mobility and long-term earnings and can hinder their advancement."

With so many people out of work, the job market is an employers' market, which will likely make it harder for women to be hired, and to be paid the wages they deserve.

"When an employer has one job opening and they get more applicants than they can consider, they can afford to be choosy," said Tucker. "They're going to fall back on racist and sexist tendencies they had even before the pandemic."

Tucker said the pandemic recession is disproportionately impacting women of color in terms of job losses, and it will likely impact their recovery, too, as they are forced to take the first job they can, no matter the pay.

"The wage gap has already robbed [women of color] of tens of thousands of dollars every year and they needed that money because they didn't have savings or emergency funds," she said. "And now that they're unemployed, they're some of the first-line people who are going to take the first job that comes along because they have no resources to hold out and wait and weather this storm."

For women who have held onto their jobs, the next few months may press them even further into a tipping point, with many schools and offices still operating remotely.

PHOTO: In this undated file image, a woman works from home while holding her newborn son.
In this undated file image, a woman works from home while holding her newborn son.
Getty Images, FILE

During the pandemic, the number of women who cited child care or family responsibilities as the reason for leaving the workforce increased 178%, while the number of men citing it less than doubled, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

Reasons for optimism

The devastating toll the pandemic has had on women, especially working moms, has some experts hopeful this moment will emerge as a turning point.

Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, is calling on leaders to institute what she calls a "Marshall Plan for Moms" that would provide a means-tested $2,400 monthly payment to moms and would be led by a "caregiving czar" tasked with implementing workplace benefits like parental leave, affordable child care and pay equity.

"As I thought about this as a CEO and a mom, it was clear to me that my life and the lives of women I work with and women I know weren't going to change when a vaccine showed up or when schools reopened," she said. "It made me realize, we just don't value things that we get for free."

"So the only way to value our worth, the only way to value the worth of moms, is to literally put a value on that so that when policymakers are making this decision of what to do, they calculate the cost of it," Saujani explained.

Mason, of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said she is hopeful that future pandemic-focused recovery packages focus on women and caregiving.

"What is true is that when schools are closed and children are home, mothers, because they are the primary caretakers in the family, are responsible," she said. "That's just the bottom line and that's a 40-plus hour a week job alone and basically unpaid labor."

"The dream for me would be a national child care infrastructure that goes from zero to 12 and is not means-tested, so regardless of your job or your occupation, you have the support," added Mason. "And that no family spends more than 7 to 10% of their income on care."

Although the female labor participation rate in the U.S. has now fallen back to where it was in 1987, Julia Pollak, a labor economist for, a jobs search site, said she is optimistic that better times are ahead for women, including working moms.

"There were things that we always could have done to make women's working lives easier and more flexible, but we didn't," she said." This pandemic has been such a huge jolt, it has changed all kinds of things. While the immediate effect has been damaging to women's careers, I think the long-term effects could be hugely beneficial."

Here are four ways women can be confident about their futures ahead, according to Pollak.

1. Women's careers won't be damaged by a 2020 gap in their resume.

Historically, when women leave the workforce, whether they lose their jobs or take time out for personal or family reasons, such as child care, they return to a trajectory of decreased pay over the course of their careers, but Pollak said that likely won't apply during the pandemic.

"Often a gap is stigmatizing on a resume. This time it really will not be," she said. "If you write, '2020, homeschooled four kids during a global pandemic,' on a resume, that is not going to hurt your career."

"Everyone understands what happened this year. If anything, you should be seen as a hero," added Pollak. "I would encourage women not to put themselves at disadvantage in the labor market, not to act as though they've lost negotiating power or lost their skills. Your skills don't disappear after a year."

2. Flexible work arrangements appear here to stay.

More than 20% of people are working remotely now, up from just 3% before the pandemic and that increased flexibility stands to benefit women, according to Pollak.

"Employers have just adopted remote work as the new normal and it's here to stay and women stand to be the big winners from that," she said. "That flexibility is something that women have typically valued more than men, and it could mean that working is more compatible with having children in the future and that women's careers suffer less of a 'motherhood penalty.'"

Pollak, who is expecting her third child in 2021, said she plans to push for more flexibility in her own work arrangements after proving herself during the pandemic, saying, "Now I feel quite confident that I'll be able to say, 'During the pandemic I worked from home and was super productive. You saw that and can I work from home for a while?'"

3. The need for better child care support is clearer than ever.

Last year, 2019, was an incredible one for women in the labor market, according to Pollak, thanks in part to policy changes like increased child care support at the state level and the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which gives federal workers access to up to 12 weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption or placement of a new child.

While this year's closing of schools and child care centers set many women back in the workplace, it has brought to the forefront how important child care is to the economy, which will hopefully spur even more change from employers and policy makers, Pollak said.

"This crisis has definitely shown people how dependent women's careers are upon a functioning child care system," she said. "And it has possibly caused people to realize how important child care and day care and early childhood education are for economic growth."

4. Women and new skills are in demand.

"People should also keep in mind that 2020 sparked a huge awakening at American companies and a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion," said Pollak. "Companies are taking very, very serious steps to hire more women, promote more women and to analyze career progressions within their companies, to crunch the numbers and fix disparities."

For women who are in the fortunate position to be able to weather the storm of the pandemic, now can be the time to develop new skills that can boost their earnings potential and career opportunities.

"It's really hard when you are already employed to find the time to do that job search and to invest in new skills, especially if you're a parent and coming home to a second shift," said Pollak. "Look at this spell of unemployment as an opportunity. You're going to be forced to make a change now so perhaps you can make the change you always wanted to make."

"I've encouraged people to look at the jobs that are out there and see which skills are in demand and then find ways to develop those skills," she said, noting the explosion of online courses to develop new skills and "new collar jobs" that don't require a college degree or professional certification.