Celebrating Women’s Accomplishments and Supporting Their Economic Prosperity
March is Women’s History Month, and this year the theme in the U.S.—set by the National Women’s History Alliance—is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” The theme represents a celebration of the tireless work of caregivers and frontline workers during the COVID-19 public health crisis. It also acknowledges the many contributions of women across history who have provided both healing and hope.
Women’s roles, contributions and accomplishments are increasingly being acknowledged and appreciated. Yet there is still a need to pause in March and celebrate women’s history because many gaps remain, despite significant progress.
This blog acknowledges and celebrates the contributions of all women: those receiving income reported on W-2 and 1099 forms, and those who don’t receive compensation even though they use their considerable skills and talents to care for their families and to better their communities through unpaid volunteer work. This blog post also provides a cautionary note: Evidence indicates that many of women’s past economic gains are at risk. Gender pay equity and a reducing of occupation segregation by gender may help propel women forward, as may greater gender parity in the daily operation of households.
A History of Caregiving at Home and Work
For generations, women have provided healing and hope to their families and their communities. Traditionally, much of this care and domestic work is unpaid. If it were compensated, even at the minimum wage, women would conservatively make an additional $1.48 trillion annually. Even in paid positions, women are more likely to be in care-related industries than men. Prior to the pandemic, they were overrepresented in the care workforce: working as caregivers in hospitals, plus as educators and caregivers in classrooms. In 2019, they comprised 77% of the 28.9 million workers in the following occupations:
- Education, training and library services
- Health care practitioner and technical occupations
- Health care support
- Personal care and services
Today’s percentage is not that different from those in the past. Although the figures are not directly comparable due to the government’s updating of its occupation codes, in 1994, women made up 80% of workers in these four broad occupations.1994 is the year of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ earliest published estimates for these occupations.
Steadfast Managers of Households
Historically, these same women have successfully managed the operation of their homes. Women’s greater caretaking and caregiving continues today (PDF). Prior to the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey showed that married mothers who work full time and have young children performed more of the caring activities and general operation activities for their families than fathers. For example, working married mothers of children under the age of 6 reported spending an average of almost an hour more a day taking care of their children than working married fathers reported spending. These mothers also spent more time doing housework, cooking and related cleanup, leaving almost an hour less time for leisure.
With changing family compositions, there has been growth in households headed by single parents. Many of these parents are mothers who must perform all the caring and household management duties. Furthermore, women of color are more likely to be single mothers of minors than are white women, with over a quarter of Black prime-age (ages 25-54) women and nearly a fifth of Hispanic/Latina women being single moms, according to our calculations of data from the 2020 American Community Survey. These women balance many roles: breadwinner, house manager, and caregiver.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Women, Especially Moms
During the pandemic, many women continued to work in these essential jobs while risking their health, and millions more exited the workforce to care for their children and parents. Although the participation rate has rebounded, it is well documented that during the pandemic, the attachment of women to the labor force fell below 55% for the first time since February 1986. This decline coincided with reports about women leaving the labor force to care for their children and parents.
The pandemic tested these mothers’ ability to use their skills and limited time for caring for their families and for their jobs. Just as the COVID-19 public health crisis is receding, inflation is placing additional demands on the skills of moms to manage the financial and daily operation of their households.
Battling adversity is not new for women and their families. Although the overall jobless rate was at a 50-year low prior to the pandemic, the United Way of Northern New Jersey estimates that prior to the pandemic, 42% of U.S. households were ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed). The median earned by women in health support and personal care and support occupations was two-thirds of the median weekly earnings of $917 for all workers in 2019, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The typical woman child care worker’s (personal care and services occupation) earnings were 54% of economy-wide median earnings.
These women had difficulty meeting unexpected bills and figuring out how to pay for the rising costs of child and health care. Moreover, they were less likely to receive benefits (PDF) like paid family and medical leave, putting them in more precarious financial positions just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Good News: We Can Prevent History from Repeating
As society continues to emerge from the pandemic, one of the many opportunities it faces is to set goals for prosperity and equity higher than conditions just prior to the pandemic. Setting pre-pandemic economic activity as the target could place women and their families in precarious economic positions.
Instead, society can build on the relief and recovery efforts over the past few years and reimagine how it wants women and their families to thrive and prosper.
Closing gender gaps can help overall economic growth. Supporting all women who provide healing and hope—whether through paid or unpaid work—could raise productivity, expand the economy, and support an inclusive recovery.
Notes and References
- 1994 is the year of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ earliest published estimates for these occupations.
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