This week IWF launched the Center for Economic Opportunity, which provides analysis and commentary on economic, labor, and tech policy. So we wanted to jump in by examining the state of women’s labor force participation. 

Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you identify which of the three following statements about women in the labor force is a lie?

A. Less than half of women participate in the labor force.
B. Women’s participation in the labor force has stalled since the last recession.
C. Women workers are concentrated in certain industries.

A. LIE. The labor force is defined as all people age 16 and older who are either employed (working) or unemployed (actively looking for work). The labor force participation rate is the percentage of the population in the labor force, whether working or looking for a job. Of the 134.7 million women in the U.S., 75.6 million were in the labor force in March 2021. That means the labor force participation rate is 56.1 percent–more than half of all women.

B. TRUE. For six decades, the rate of women entering the labor force has been on the rise, nearly doubling from 32 percent (17 million) in 1948 to as high as 60 percent in 1999. It hovered around that level until the 2009 recession when it fell below 57 percent and remained at or near that level since. Most recently, the pandemic pushed over 2.5 million women out of the labor force.  However, even despite the past few years, it is tremendous that 55 million women joined the labor force over the past 60 years. Truly, the workforce is a different place because of them.

C. True. While women can be found in just about every industry, they are more likely to occupy jobs in professionals services, office and administrative support, and the service industry: from teachers, librarians, counselors, and social workers to home health aides, dental assistants, and phlebotomists, to food workers, hairdressers, and childcare workers. Unfortunately, female workers were hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic when restaurants and bars, schools, and personal care businesses were shut down. As states reopen and schools resume in-person learning, we can expect to see women rejoin the workforce.

If federal and state lawmakers want to encourage more women to (re)enter the workforce, they should end policies that pay them not to work. Generous unemployment benefits, for example, can leave workers with more income than they earned in their previous jobs. They have an incentive to remain unemployed until their benefits run out. This hurts the people who depend on these workers such as the disabled and the sick, and hurts workers themselves in the long-term, by discouraging them from taking jobs that will ultimately lead to higher earning positions.