Naomi Knowles participates in a training program for construction workers in Deerfield, Wis. Women’s employment is at an all-time high, but fields such as construction and tech management remain male dominated. Courtesy of Mustang Christie/Operation Fresh Start
After fears of a “she-cession” during the pandemic, women have returned to the workforce at unprecedented rates.
Much of the gain reflects a boom in jobs traditionally held by women, including nursing and teaching. Many good-paying jobs in fields such as construction and tech management are still dominated by men, a continuing challenge for states trying to even the playing field for women workers.
In June, the national share of employed women ages 25-54, considered prime working age, hit 75.3%, the highest recorded since the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey started reporting the numbers in 1948. The share of women 25-54 working or looking for work also hit a new high of 77.8% in June, the third straight month it beat the previous record of 77.3% from 2000.
“It’s good news that women are finding jobs in this economy at a greater rate than they were previously,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute. She noted that brisk hiring in health care and government has helped more women find jobs.
But there is still a gap between rates of men and women in the workforce overall in every state except Vermont. As of March 2022, the latest figures available, the largest gap is 18 percentage points in Arizona, where 89.6% of prime-age men have jobs compared with 71.4% of women. The smallest is in Maine, where 77.8% of men in that age range have jobs compared with 77.3% of women.
Mothers of small children lost work at three times the rate of fathers early in the pandemic as they struggled to supervise remote learning sessions. Even when schools and day cares reopened in person, they often closed down unexpectedly during outbreaks, drawing out employment woes for many working women with children. Combined with early pandemic job losses in tourism and hospitality, fields where many women hold jobs, women’s employment dipped as low as 63.4% in April 2020, the lowest since 1984.
For some women, getting back to the workforce after the pandemic slump in women’s employment is a relief, and in some cases hybrid work has created the flexibility they need to return to jobs.
“It really means a lot because apart from the feeling that you’re contributing to your family, which is so important in today’s world, there’s just more fulfillment as a person,” said Deepika Gosain of Fremont, California. She started work in April as a learning and development specialist at a surgical company, finding that hybrid work helped her return to the workforce after taking several years off to care for two small children.
Health care and education represented the biggest gains for women in the past year, between June 2022 and June 2023, comprising about 778,000 of the 2 million jobs added for women, according to a Stateline analysis. Government and hospitality jobs added another 727,000 jobs for women.
Jobs in construction and tech management remain stubbornly male dominated, however. Men are 96.5% of carpenters and nearly 74% of computer system managers, for example.
Karen Arrigo-Hill is looking for work in financial tech again after taking a break to raise small children. Like Gosain, she’s used the networking group Women Back to Work for tips on California jobs for women who have taken breaks from work. She also participates in an incubator program for underrepresented genders in tech, called In the Lab Product Management.
“The biggest thing I notice is all the support there is for the women who took a career break for caregiving and want to return to work in technology,” Arrigo-Hill said. “This process of returning is a long process, and it really helps.”
States such as California, Massachusetts and New York are working to get more women into male-dominated fields.
A Democratic-sponsored bill in the New York State Assembly calls for $500,000 in funding to get more women into high-wage jobs, including construction and some tech fields, where they make up less than 25% of workers.
Elsewhere in the region, the state-funded Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women in June recommended passage of a legislative resolution saying that COVID-19 had an outsized effect on women, including on their jobs, and that “prejudices against gender and race have served to make it difficult for women to fill roles demanded by society and their professions.” In its annual report, the commission urged passage of bills that would provide more day care and improve pay transparency, which can lead to women earning higher salaries.
Being the only girl on a crew of all men, it feels like a lot of pressure. They expect you to be less than them. But I’ve proven them wrong.
– Naomi Knowles, Operation Fresh Start Build Academy trainee
California has budgeted $30 million over the last two years to helping more women get jobs in construction, including grants for apprenticeships and child care.
“When we spoke with women in construction, they told us childcare costs were one of the biggest barriers to working in the trade,” said Katie Hagen, director of the state Department of Industrial Relations, in a statement.
In Wisconsin, using state, local and private funding, the Operation Fresh Start Build Academy is helping 21-year-old Naomi Knowles train for a career in construction. On a recent day she hung drywall in a home under construction in Deerfield.
“Being the only girl on a crew of all men, it feels like a lot of pressure,” Knowles said. “They expect you to be less than them. But I’ve proven them wrong. I love the people and I love the results — seeing this house go from studs to walls in here and siding. It’s amazing.”
Construction is an important field for women to get into because the pay can be good, there’s a labor shortage, and a college degree isn’t necessary, according to a forthcoming report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Since the pandemic started, there are 126,000 more women working in construction for a total of 1.1 million, though women still make up only 14% of workers in the industry.
“The percentage is so low for women that it can easily send the message that this is clearly a sector just for men,” said Ariane Hegewisch, the group’s program director for employment and earnings. The U.S. Commerce Department is also pushing to double the number of women in construction as federally funded infrastructure projects ramp up.
Vermont is the only state where prime-age women work at a greater rate than men: 83% compared with 81% for men. Vermont may be unique because of its mix of jobs, said Mathew Barewicz, the state’s labor market information director. “Vermont has a diverse industry composition without an overreliance on typically male-dominated industries [like] mining, transportation, finance.”
Progress in bringing more women to the workplace is likely to continue, said Beth Almeida, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank specializing in women’s economic security.
“This generation of women ages 25-54 have more college degrees than any other generation of women, and having college degrees is a very strong predictor of labor force attachment,” Almeida said.
“They’ve made a substantial financial investment in their future. But their employment is very impacted by caregiving, because women have a greater responsibility when it comes to family.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Naomi Knowles’ name, Karen Arrigo-Hill's job title in the photo caption and the quote in the last paragraph.]
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