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Hot Job Market Is Wooing Women Into Workforce Faster Than Men

May 20, 2019
Originally published on May 25, 2019 8:22 am

Gaby Gemetti thought she was failing. After having a second child, she struggled to be a good mom and also a good employee.

"I felt like I wasn't a good mother," she says. "I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about, 'Oh, my presentation,' or just work in general."

So, even though Gemetti was moving up the management ranks at a top tech company in Silicon Valley, she gave up the job four years ago to stay home in Santa Clara, Calif. As hard as it was, Gemetti's decision was particularly driven by her son's needs, when he started requiring regular therapy.

But she missed working on team projects. And recent headlines spotlighting the need for women in technology piqued her interest in looking for a job again. So she got back to work.

Over the past three years, women in their working prime such as Gemetti have been entering the workforce at more than double the rate of men.

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That recent rise comes at a time when the economy is humming along and the unemployment rate has reached historic lows, which means there are more opportunities for workers seeking higher pay and better benefits.

Those benefits appeal to working mothers like Gemetti. In March, she started a "returnship," a new type of program to recruit and retrain women like her who are looking to resume their careers. The new gig, managing a team at Cisco Systems, gives her time to occasionally pick up her kids from school.

Women returning to jobs at higher rates since 2015 dramatically reverses the trend of the previous three years, when women were leaving the workforce at twice the rate of men. It is also a reversal of a nearly two-decade drop in the percentage of working women.

During World War II, women started entering the labor force in large numbers. That trend didn't stop for decades. Until 2000. Then it started to dip — a decline that continued through the Great Recession and ended in 2015.

Now, many employers are struggling to find workers and are trying to lure them with more family-friendly benefits, such as flexible hours and paid leave. That's attractive to women, who continue to remain the primary caregivers for children and elderly parents.

There are other things contributing to the expanding female workforce — the growth of industries such as health care and education that rely heavily on women, for example.

Women also are making inroads in historically male-dominated fields such as manufacturing and construction, says Martha Gimbel, research director at the job site Indeed, an NPR sponsor.

"In a tight labor market, employers are willing to look at applicants that they might have dismissed in the past," she says.

Another draw for women: Employers competing for workers are paying more. But is it enough, given a number of other financial barriers to women working?

Their return to work means there is greater demand for child care, which is harder to find. And, unlike Canada and Europe, the U.S. doesn't subsidize child care.

"If a woman has a relatively low hourly wage, maybe it makes more sense for her to take care of her own children," says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University who researches women in the workforce — even if that means earning less later in life when a woman goes back to work.

"Can wage growth support workers paying for more expensive child care?" Gimbel asks.

The employment gains American women have made in recent years pale in comparison to countries such as Canada and Sweden, where a higher percentage of women work.

"This is a real indication that there's something wrong," Goldin says.

Women in the U.S. face greater financial headwinds. Much of that is tied to their role as default caregivers in many families. Paid time off to care for children and sick family members remains relatively rare. Some cities and states require it, but federal law does not.

That makes it harder to keep a job.

There's another disincentive, Goldin says: Married women with working spouses are taxed at a higher rate.

The calculation to work, or not, is personal and practical. But that choice has also long been judged and criticized as a subject of culture wars. In the 1980s, it centered on "latchkey children" — kids of working parents who unlocked their own homes after school and looked after themselves.

The #MeToo movement reignited workplace debates, including inequity in pay and women's representation in executive ranks. Many employers are now trying to address that.

They're adding retraining and mentorship programs to encourage women to return, and are explicitly recruiting women, says Sonu Ratra. She took a career break and founded a staffing firm and a job-placement and support group called Women Back to Work.

"There has been a cultural shift in the last two years," Ratra says. "Women are being celebrated more today than ever."

And that shift isn't just felt by women.

When Gaby Gemetti decided to go back to work, both she and her husband shifted their schedules.

"We were like, 'Oh God, child care. What are we going to do about the kids?' " she says.

Gemetti is fortunate. Her mother and a part-time sitter can pick up the children from school most days, while Gemetti and her husband alternate on others. But between her daughter's swimming and dancing lessons and her son's baseball practices, it's still a daily logistical challenge.

That juggle hasn't gotten any easier, she says: "Practice is at 5:30, so you have to leave work at 4:30 in order to get them ready to scramble, and then what are you going to do about dinner?"

It's all part of the calculus Gemetti and other women are making as they return to the workforce.

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