The ‘She-cession’ is Over: American Women Are Working

“It seems nobody wants to work these days.”

Kim Kardashian took heat for saying that in 2022, and it’s even further from the truth in 2023.

While business executives still lament the difficulty in finding all the good, reliable employees they need, all the statistics underscore this fact: It’s not because no one wants to work. It’s because a record number of people are already working. 

This is especially true for women in their prime working years. In 2020, COVID-19 “interrupted longer-term trends,” according to Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster at the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. 

“Many of the vacancies during COVID were in education, health care, leisure and hospitality — all sectors that tend to have higher female participation,” he says. The contraction of those industries was compounded by interruptions in school and childcare, burdens which traditionally impact women more than men.

Unlike the 2008-09 recession, which was sometimes called a “man-cession” because it impacted more jobs traditionally held by men, COVID created what C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, called a “she-cession.”

The big picture of the current workforce, what the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the “employment situation,” is made up of a number of indicators.

  • The national unemployment rate in July was 3.5%, just a smidge higher than its all-time low of 3.4% in January. But the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively looking for work. It doesn’t include people who have chosen not to work or people who have stopped looking for work, often because they have been discouraged by rejection. That’s why the unemployment rate can go up a little bit even though the number of people who are working has also gone up. More people who have been on the sidelines may decide the job market is robust enough to start looking for work again, becoming part of the unemployment rate.

  • The labor force participation rate is the number of people working compared to the total number of people over age 16 (minus those who are in the military, in prison, in nursing homes, etc.). From March through July, the participation rate was steady at 62.6%. For the population overall, this figure has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels (63.3% in late 2019 and early 2020), and even that was significantly below peak labor participation rates above 67% in the 1990s. Since then, a decrease in the birth rate and longer life expectancy have resulted in an older population less likely to be employed. The median age of Americans has increased from 30 in 1980 to nearly 39 in 2022.

  • That’s why the labor force participation rate for workers ages 25 to 54, those in their prime working years, is a better indicator of appetite for work than the overall labor force participation rate. And in that age group, more Americans are working (83.4%) than at any time since 2007 — yes, just before the Great Recession. In June, 75.3% of women between 25 and 54 were working — the highest workforce participation rate since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking women’s employment in 1948. The she-cession is over, thanks to eager hiring in jobs traditionally held by women, including nursing and teaching.

  • If you then add in the number of prime working age women who were unemployed but looking for work, you get another all-time high in June: 77.8% of women who are willing to work.

  • And one more all-time high: In July, women made up 49.9% of all nonfarm workers in the U.S. In raw numbers, 77.94 million women were employed in July, only 252,000 fewer than men in the workforce and 1.6 million more women than were employed in February 2020, just before the pandemic.

“Now that we’re in a more normal post-COVID world,” Pakko says, “the temporary disruptions have given way to a re-emergence of the trends: a long decline in participation rate for men and a slowing, but perhaps still-positive long-term trend toward higher participation rates for women.”


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