Women Are Getting Pushed Out of the Workforce — With Few Ways to Return

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Since March, 28% of women with kids under 18 in the household have temporarily or permanently left the workforce to become a primary caregiver to children, compared to 10% of men.

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When Anna Boven left her six-figure marketing job at a financial services firm this summer, she had mixed feelings about her decision.

She’d spent the last couple of years trying to land her dream role as chief of staff to the company’s head of media, and she wasn’t ready to stop working. On the other hand, she was the default parent for her three young children and the one addressing their emotional concerns while also working remotely and running the household.

With her husband earning a higher salary, they both felt his work took priority. “I was the one working at the kitchen counter or working in the basement or in my son’s room, and carrying my laptop everywhere,” says the 35-year-old who lives outside of Chicago. Meanwhile, her husband was in a study behind closed doors. 

In May, two months into the pandemic, she quit to keep up with the demands at home. “The guilt that came along with it started building,” says Boven, who adds that the family was lucky to be able to afford living on one income.

Boven is one of millions who are now part of the “she-cession,” a troubling uptick in loss of jobs — be it layoffs or otherwise — for women across the U.S. The problem? Many women have had to keep up with caregiving tasks at home, often sandwiched between older parents and young children, even as their demands at work continued. For those who are parents, the tasks of online school and other child-related obligations were a breaking point. Indiana University sociology professor Jessica Colarco, whose research includes the pandemic’s effect on families, puts it bluntly: “In other countries there are safety nets. In the U.S., we have women.”

Since March, 28% of women with kids under 18 in the household have temporarily or permanently left the workforce to become a primary caregiver to children, compared to 10% of men, according to a study of over 1,000 U.S. adults with dependents under 18 in the household for NextAdvisor conducted by YouGov. When those in households with two working parents were asked to imagine which parenting partner would be the preferred person to leave the workforce to become their children’s primary caregiver, 69% of women said they would likely be the one to leave work, compared to 31% of males.

Since the initial Coronavirus outbreak, to what extent have you ever considered leaving the workforce (or actually left the workforce) to become the primary caregiver to your child(ren)?

The unemployment numbers are grim. Since February 2020, women lost 5.4 million jobs and accounted for 55% of jobs lost, with an unemployment rate higher than their white male counterparts. In December alone, women lost 140,000 net jobs, with Black and Latina women hit hardest, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor statistics from the National Women’s Law Center. 

And the losses are not temporary, adds Dr. Colarco. “Once women get pushed out, it’s very difficult for them to find their way back in,” she said.

Beyond Financials

The cost of child care is often the main reason women leave the workplace. 

About 55% of families report spending at least $10,000 a year on child care, per Care.com. Especially for those with multiple young children, paying for daycare while needing to homeschool or find additional help for older children or aging parents can add up. 

In two-parent, two-income households where one parent has considered leaving or has left the workforce to become a primary caregiver since the pandemic began, half (50%) say the cost of external child care played a significant role in the decision, according to NextAdvisor data.

If you or a parenting partner had considered leaving the workforce (or actually left the workforce) to become the primary caregiver to your child(ren) since the initial Coronavirus outbreak, did the cost of external child care play a significant role in the decision?

But while child care costs often play a role in one partner’s decision to leave the workforce, it’s not always a major factor. Many women feel that the kind of work they can do at home in terms of teaching their children simply can’t be outsourced, says Dr. Roberta Gebhard, immediate past president of the American Medical Women’s Association, a trade group. “It’s not only the child care, but also the teaching part of it,” she says.

Many women working in medical fields have also been hesitant to continue their roles due to fear of COVID-19 exposure, she adds. Recently, Dr. Gebhard has witnessed women physicians who were laid off or left their job take on more flexible opportunities such as wellness or career coaching. 

Even executive women — who have not quit or been laid off — are having a difficult time, adds Jocelyn Kung, a San Francisco-based executive coach to many female executives working in tech. Many of them are “doing more downshifting” and not pursuing challenging career opportunities to try to get through the demands outside of work, she says. 

“At the senior level, the women are more exhausted than the men for sure,” she adds.

Rethinking expectations

Some of the pressure is societal. Women feel an outsize need to continue to be caregivers while doing full-time work, says Dr. Colarco. “We cheer for [women] for sacrificing their careers for the good of others. It tells them that they should be doing more of it and that it’s where their primary value lies,” she says.

In the long run, it can lead to exhaustion and a decline in mental health. Many women now report feeling that they can find success in neither their work life nor their home life, she finds. “They feel a deep sense of failure on all fronts and it’s just debilitating,” says Dr. Colarco.

For Boven, leaving her role has helped squash these feelings of burnout and failure. Nowadays, she takes the same pride in what she feeds her family as she once did in her PowerPoint presentations. “I’m trying to find that same fulfillment when I get my kids good fresh air or when I get the dogs walked or when my kid finishes all his homework,” says Boven. She misses the coworker interactions but has no plans to return.

Having the time to support her children through the pandemic feels most important for now. “I’m almost overwhelmed by the freedom,” she says.

Methodology

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,023 U.S. adults (aged 18+) with children under 18. Fieldwork was undertaken Dec. 12-1, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.