When the pandemic struck and millions of workers lost their jobs temporarily or permanently, we along with many others were rightly concerned about the devastating impacts on women’s workforce gains.

Many women have returned to work, but the disappearance of the millions of working moms from the labor force since then is troubling. 

Perhaps there is more reason to be more optimistic. Women may be choosing to stay out of the workforce, not because they have no other options, but because they want to. That in itself is a sign of progress.

The numbers

During the pandemic, nearly 1.8 million women left the labor force. The percentage of women aged 20 and older participating in the U.S. labor force dropped from 59.2 percent in February 2020 to 57.5 percent in June. These are three-decade lows. 

Parenting may be a stronger draw than a paycheck

Politico profiled several women who left their jobs during the pandemic to oversee their children’s educations and have yet to return by choice. They have found more fulfillment in mothering full-time. There are tradeoffs from the lost paychecks to less money going to their children’s college funds and their retirements, but it’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make. 

Take Sandee Barrick, a 51-year-old mother of two:

Sandee Barrick was making a six-figure salary as a salesperson when she quit her job in December 2019 to move to North Carolina. She had planned to return to work as soon as she got settled, but she was still enrolling her younger son in school and switching over her driver’s license and registration when the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything shut down. At first she made plans for when she went back to work, but slowly that shifted to if she would go.

But mostly she values the extra time at home, the holidays she no longer has to work through and the fact that she no longer feels she’s racing through her life on auto-pilot, tied up not just with “the job and the kids but the scheduling of doctor’s appointments, and the cooking and the cleaning.” She and her husband have decided they can make it work on one income, and the setup also feels, at least for now, like it’s best for their family.

“The longer I’m out of it, the more I’m just kind of like, well, should I go back?” Barrick said. “The longer time goes by, the more ambivalent I get.”

Barrick represents many working women who have balanced fast-paced careers with household demands, but when the pandemic slowed everything down, it pushed them to reprioritize what is most important to them.

Survey data point to this trend among working women. A survey by McKinsey found that women–perhaps as many as 1 in 4 corporate women–were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. The factors driving these decisions include the lack of flexibility at work, feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, housework and caregiving burdens due to Covid-19, and worry about being negatively judged because of caregiving.

A Deloitte survey found that well over half of women planned to leave their jobs in two years or less citing a lack of work-life balance as their top reason for wanting to quit.

Health conditions may demand more flexibility

There was a good profile in The Washington Post with a 36-year-old mother. She has a chronic illness and disability that made working most jobs unbearable. 

Prior to the pandemic, Rachel Hinken found a great job working at a care center for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia, where she would play music, hold their hands, and give them comfort. 

When the pandemic hit she was furloughed, then brought back to do remote work for one hour each week. Despite not working, being at home freed up time to be with her son, pets, boyfriend, and her band.

When she was called back to work a few days a week, she felt like she actually achieved the best balance of work and family life for her: 

Hinken loved the light schedule, and she began to dread the imminent return to a full workweek. “I had all these days off in a row, and I could recuperate from working and it was fine,” she says.

For years, my chronic illness kept me isolated. The pandemic helped me get closer to my community.

It took her some time to muster the courage to ask for a permanent change. “I was very scared. Like, ‘What do I do if they tell me they cannot accommodate me?’ I’d be stuck at five days a week again,” Hinken remembers. Would she quit and begin collecting disability insurance instead, as she had for years after her diagnosis? She had hated not working. “So in my head, I had a lot of thoughts.”

When Hinken finally asked for a new, pared-back schedule, her employer offered her one: in-person work, three days per week. Hinken gratefully accepted.

The reduction in work, Hinken says, has helped her regain some control over her energy levels. And, crucially, she hasn’t gotten sick. Still, it’s a trade-off. Hinken takes home $500 less per month than she did before the pandemic — $6,000 less per year. For her, that means eliminating such services as DoorDash and Instacart from her budget, and sometimes adding energy-sucking chores such as cooking, grocery shopping and picking up takeout.

Hinken is not alone. According to Census Bureau data, over six million people were unemployed because of disabilities or non-COVID illnesses. How many of those individuals might be employable if they had access to flexible work opportunities? Not everyone with a disability can work, but many can and flexible jobs (including through independent contract work) make employment possible for workers rather than forcing them onto disability. 

School reopenings are a big x factor

A big determining factor for how women decide to navigate the workforce is the education of their children. Last September, over 800,000 women left the workforce, likely as they learned that their children would return to school for hybrid or full remote education rather than in person. As the primary overseers of their educations, significantly more women than men chose to step away from the workforce.

With more-if not most- K-12 students expected to be back in school in person five days a week, working parents of school-aged kids will no longer have the pressure of overseeing those educations and may be more willing to re-enter the workforce. We will have to watch what the data reveal over time.

Women want flexibility

Personal stories and surveys signal that women who decide to stay in the workforce, desire greater flexibility now more than ever due to the pandemic. Flexibility can look quite different for every workplace. That could be in the number of days/hours worked each week, whether work is done remotely or in person, job sharing, and other arrangements. According to a Morning Consult survey conducted in late June, nearly 1 in 5 women said they never want to return to work in person, compared to just 7 percent of men.

For some women, having an employer is not what they want at all. They may choose to start their own business or start contracting. It’s for this reason that Congress should not pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which could decimate independent contracting nationwide.

Congress also proposes subsidizing childcare costs and has temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit to give some families more money for childcare costs, but it will never be enough. Moreover, cash doesn’t fix the flexibility issue for female workers who want more time at home rather than to send their kids out of the house if they don’t have to. Some women want to be at home entirely and that’s a choice we should respect and celebrate as well.

Crafting the schedule and work-life balance that best suits each woman’s situation is the ultimate goal. Policymakers should reject the knee-jerk reaction that we have to force women back to work if that’s not what they want. Also, throwing cash at families will not solve problems when more choice and more flexibility are what women desire.