1 in 3 women who left workforce during pandemic have yet to return, citing COVID concerns, lack of opportunities

Updated November 29, 2021

Key Findings

  • 35% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic haven’t returned to the workforce
  • Minority, low-income, and older women most likely to be unemployed
  • Concerns about contracting COVID are stopping 33% of women from rejoining workforce
  • 36% of unemployed women are actively applying for jobs but haven’t been hired yet
  • 3 in 10 women say they don’t know when they’ll be able to get back to work
  • Half of unemployed women want better pay and benefits, the ability to work remotely

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. economy in March 2020, not all workers were affected equally.

Research shows that women workers were disproportionately pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic. According to a new study by ResumeBuilder.com, many of them are still unemployed.

In November, we surveyed 1,250 women who quit or were let go from their jobs during the pandemic regarding their current employment status as well as if and when they anticipate returning to work.

35% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic are still out of work

Sixty-five percent of women who became unemployed during the pandemic have since returned to work.

For the majority of women, their job loss was pandemic-related. Thirty-five percent of women were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, while 27% quit their jobs because of COVID-19 concerns.

Eleven percent of women left their jobs to care for children and another 7% quit to care for adult family members, such as a spouse or parent.

Minority, low-income, and older women most likely to be unemployed

Unsurprisingly, some groups of women are experiencing unemployment at higher rates..

Fifty-three percent of women 55 and older are still out of work, compared to 38% of women ages 18-54. This can be attributed in part to higher rates of retirement among women 55 and older (31% compared to 14% of women 18-54).

Low-income women are also facing high rates of unemployment. Forty-eight percent of women who earned $49,999 or less annually are still unemployed, compared to 35% of women who earned $50,000 to $124,999 annually, and 16% of women who earned $125,000 or more.

Meanwhile, among ethnic groups, 46% of Black women are still unemployed, followed by 39% of Hispanic/Latino women, 32% of white women, and 24% of Asian women.

Regardless of which specific groups of women are affected by ongoing unemployment, the trend is worrisome, according to career strategist and professional resume writer Carolyn Kleiman.

“Any time there is a large group of people willing and able to work who are out of work, it’s cause for concern,” Kleiman says. “Women make up a large part of the workforce, and are particularly dominant in fields like education, personal care, healthcare, food service, and retail sales. Employment in these fields was highly affected by the pandemic. Now we are seeing a cycle develop that affects other women.”

Kleiman uses childcare as an example. “Women who work in childcare may be reluctant to return to work because of COVID concerns, because young children can’t be vaccinated yet. However, if there are staffing shortages at preschools, other women may not be able to secure childcare for their kids, preventing them from returning to work.”

COVID concerns preventing β…“ of unemployed women from rejoining workforce

Some of the reasons why women haven’t gone back to work are related to how they became unemployed in the first place.

Thirty-three percent of women haven’t returned to work yet because they’re still concerned about contracting COVID-19.

Twenty-two percent blame a lack of childcare for their inability to return to work, while 20% say a lack of care for adult family members is holding them back.

Nearly 2 in 5 women applying for jobs haven’t been successful in getting hired

Meanwhile, 36% of unemployed women who are actively trying to rejoin the workforce by applying for jobs haven’t been hired yet. This demonstrates the disconnect in a labor market where employers are desperately seeking employees, yet job-seekers claim that they can’t get interviews or job offers.

Even as the economy has been steadily adding more jobs, 30% of unemployed women say they haven’t gone back to work because of a lack of job opportunities in their area.

All of this is also part of a pandemic-related cycle, Kleiman says.

“Women who left industries such as retail, education, childcare, healthcare, or hospitality are most likely to be affected by extended unemployment,” she says. “It’s possible that either their place of employment closed or has less staffing needs. If there are not as many opportunities in the field they work in, they either have to try to find a new job among less opportunities or try to transition to another field.”

According to our survey, a number of women are in fact looking to transition into a new field. Eighteen percent of women are using this interruption in their professional lives to pursue education or training for a different career path.

For unemployed women who are actively job-hunting, Kleiman has some advice.

“Be strategic in your search,” she says. “Target your application materials to each job you apply for and most importantly network. That doesn’t mean only seeking out career-focused conversations with people in your field of interest but with everyone you talk to. You never know where a discussion could lead.”

29% of unemployed women don’t know when they’ll be able to return to work

As with many aspects of the pandemic, the end of this phase of extended unemployment for women is still uncertain.

As of November 2021, 29% of women don’t know when they will be able to rejoin the workforce. Another 10% say they are leaving indefinitely.

On the flip side, 38% of women anticipate returning to work within the next six months.

Half of unemployed women want better pay and benefits, the ability to work remotely

As Kleiman says, having one-third of unemployed women still out of the workforce is concerning. But there are solutions employers can implement to help women get back to work.

“Hiring managers need to offer flexible work options, including remote or hybrid work, and flexible hours, especially for women who are caring for children or family members,” Kleiman says. “Increasing pay and improving benefits would also make it easier for women to return to work. Additionally, employers should provide training and development opportunities as a recruitment and retention tool.”

According to our survey, these are the fixes unemployed women themselves are seeking.

Fifty percent of unemployed women say jobs with better pay and benefits would help them get back to work, followed by the ability to work remotely (49%), and jobs with flexible hours (42%).

COVID remains a concern, with 32% of women saying they want virus transmission rates to be lower before they return to work.

Twenty-four percent of women need more affordable and accessible childcare to help them get back into the workforce.

Whether these solutions are implemented is largely up to employers and society at large. In the meantime, for better or worse, many women will remain sidelined as the world slowly returns to its pre-pandemic norms.

Methodology

All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by ResumeBuilder.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,250 American women ages 18 or older were surveyed. To qualify for the survey, each respondent had to have become unemployed during the pandemic. Appropriate respondents were found via a screening question. This survey was conducted over a two-day span, starting on November 12, 2021 and ending on November 13, 2021. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. For full survey data, please email [email protected].