There is a massive gap between the reports detailing “women in the workforce” and the jobs women rejoined in 2023. The employment exodus for women – to care for young children, to homeschool their children, or to leave their crowded urban homes for rural life – was bemoaned by economists, government officials, and influencers alike. From 2020-2022, more women left the workforce than men. By March of this year, however, it was clear that this trend had reversed course as women returned to the workforce, to stay, at higher numbers than men.

Many herald this return as a win for women’s liberation and career trajectory. But before we celebrate work for the sake of work, it’s important to consider who these women are, what jobs they are doing, and their reason for returning to work. Unfortunately, it appears that massive financial losses due to inflation – not women’s empowerment – are responsible for the rise of mothers in the workforce. 

Some reports show that inflation is stalling, but the reality, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pointed out last week, is that “cumulative inflation since the president took office now clocks in at 17.6 per cent.” 

In 2022-23 alone, the rate of inflation increased significantly. To put it in perspective, E.J. Antoni, a research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, estimated that “the typical American family today is about $7,400 poorer than when Biden took office.” Indeed, Americans share about one trillion dollars in credit card debt. As Antoni pointed out, when inflation grows, the family budget shrinks. The result? Women are propelled back into the workforce to help support their families – and not necessarily in pursuit of a glamorous career, as suggested by reports focusing on corporate America. 

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal showed that women were most likely to enter jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry. Such jobs include fast food cooks and cashiers, restaurant servers and bartenders, hotel staff and cleaning services, and the like. These jobs provide excellent opportunities for families, certainly, but they often lack the flexibility that women, especially of young children, desire. These jobs are also disproportionately filled by low-income and working-class women.

Women should work, especially when it’s necessary to provide for their family, but it’s important not to confuse this with ‘women’s empowerment’ or as a decision reflective of what women prefer. The delay in work among this demographic, but not the laptop class, suggests the rise of women in the workforce is less about preference and more about need. 

Among college and non-college-educated women, a report by the Institute for Family Studies shows that less than half of mothers say that full-time work is their ideal arrangement. Over 50 per cent of women in each category said that part-time or no work at all was ideal. For many, the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to realise this dream. It’s a shame that many seem propelled by inflation and poor economic decision-making to rejoin the workforce, rather than by their own interest and desire to do so. 

Despite unrelenting inflation, it’s worth considering what policy decisions may help provide mothers achieve their ideal work situation.

One potential remedy arises in the form of flexible or gig work, as well as the option to sell used items or crafts on platforms such as Etsy. 

Indeed, an entire movement of women on Instagram and TikTok detail money-making shortcuts that utilise artificial intelligence and Canva to create online books and resources. Other models show women how to make money off advertising links or how to find corporations willing to pay them for product reviews. The main selling point is that women, only working as they’re able, can make thousands of dollars while remaining present with their children.

Regrettably, many of these alternative options to non-full-time income have encountered substantial challenges on the policy front. In 2022, the Department of Labor (DOL) implemented regulations that narrowed the definition of an “independent contractor,” making it more difficult for women to qualify in this category.

To make matters worse, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced new 1099-K reporting requirements in 2023 that placed heavier burdens on those using payment apps or online stores. After substantial pushback, however, the IRS recently shared that it would raise the new reporting threshold from the proposed $600 to $5,000 (a notable decline from the previous threshold of $20,000). 

This change places more burdens and financial costs on taxpayers, especially those pursuing flexible work in the gig economy. These decisions work against the very mothers who are trying to provide for their families. 

Women should be free to pursue meaningful work that aligns with their personal preferences, not feel forced into full-time work given the cost of inflation and undue burdens on independent contractors.