We may be entering another catastrophic period for women’s employment.

A year ago, as many children started logging into a virtual school year, more than 865,000 women left the workforce in a single month. September’s cataclysmic month for women’s employment follows months in which women lost more jobs than men, dating back to the start of the pandemic. By early October, women had lost more than a generation of job gains, and economists and experts announced that the country was going through what has been called a “sell-off.”

While the economy has steadily created jobs for the whole of 2021, we don’t know what the start of another uncertain school year and the delta’s continued rise will mean for female employment, but there is already signs that women have difficulty re-entering the labor market despite wanting to.

August terrible jobs report

An overwhelming majority (88%) of August’s employment gains went to men, while women’s employment gains are slowing significantly. The latest employment report comes at a time when women’s employment continues to be in crisis due to the economic consequences of the pandemic: there are 1.7 million fewer women in the workforce, compared to 1 , 3 million fewer men. For too many women, a true economic recovery will remain elusive without Congress adopting the Build Back Better agenda.

But we also know that this pandemic has only exacerbated existing gender inequalities in the workforce – there has never been a time in American history when women and men have been treated fairly in employment opportunities. Women, especially mothers and women of color, have historically faced barriers in the workplace, fueled in part by persistent gender, racial and ethnic prejudices and stereotypes and the lack of policies to help overcome conflicting work and family demands.

Without Congress intentionally focusing the needs of women, especially mothers and women of color, in the Build Back Better agenda, we risk losing decades of hard-fought improvements in women’s economic security, as well as losses. ” anchor the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

At a time when women’s earnings in the labor market remain below pre-pandemic levels and could start to slow, now is not the time for Congress to curb policies that would promote a full, inclusive and effective recovery. fair. Understanding the employment situation of women – and more importantly the policies needed to strengthen women’s employment prospects and working conditions – must be a priority for policymakers if we are to have a real recovery that helps women. women and their families to become economically secure.

Improve the quality of jobs

Helping women return to work is crucial, but it is just as important to improve the jobs they will return to. Black women, for example, have always had one of the highest labor force participation rates for women – a fact that has continued to be true throughout the pandemic – but they are disproportionately more likely to work in lower paying jobs that lack the protections to meet their care needs.

The latest jobs report must remind us that we cannot experience a real recovery without addressing the specific barriers that compromise employment and the retention of women in quality jobs that ensure economic stability.

This pandemic has highlighted the foreseeable consequences of the concentration of women in historically undervalued, underpaid and essential professions, such as childcare and childcare; and the unequal share of care responsibilities assumed by women, especially mothers, without adequate care infrastructure to support their families. Policies that allow workers to keep their jobs and take time off to care for them, especially in emergencies, are key to creating fair workplaces and enhancing women’s participation in the labor market. .

This month, more than 100 economists called on Congress to pass historic investments in child care and early learning to make it easier for mothers to participate in the workforce. They cite that while childcare costs have risen, women’s participation in the labor market has stagnated, costing the US economy $ 57 billion a year.

The opportunity to make historic investments in health care infrastructure arises at a time when the rate of participation of women in the labor market is equivalent to the rates observed more than 30 years ago. Since the start of the pandemic, 1.7 million women have been forced out of the workforce due to decades of underinvestment in essential caregivers and workers and a lack of work-life policies essential to the workforce. employment of women. There are still nearly 3 million fewer employed women than before the recession and 1.2 million more officially classified as unemployed.

Dropping out of the labor market

In August, women’s participation in the labor market fell for the first time since April of this year, with 177,000 white, 28,000 Asian and 43,000 Hispanic women leaving the workforce (especially before the start of the school year in many regions of the country). Women of color, especially black and Hispanic women, continue to suffer the brunt of job losses. While black women were the only demographic of women who had a higher employment rate than the previous August, 25% of them did not find work despite their will. It continues to be disappointing but not surprising: Black women represent 26% of the additional unemployed since the start of the pandemic, compared to 14% of the total female workforce. Meanwhile, Hispanic women have experienced the largest decline in labor force participation – for both women and men – with a drop of 3.8 percentage points since February 2020.

Women constitute the majority of employees in occupations such as childcare, home care and preschool education; these occupations (long undervalued and underpaid) would see higher wages and better jobs with significant federal investments. Black and Hispanic women would benefit the most from these changes as they participate in care work at higher rates than their overall labor market participation. Meanwhile, everyone would benefit from more affordable and reliable care for their children and family members.

The Build Back Better program, particularly paid family and medical leave, an improved child care system and a fully refundable child tax credit, offers Congress a unique opportunity to reduce persistent gender and racial inequalities. The continued impacts of the delta variant on employment in industries traditionally occupied by women, along with the uncertain start of an academic year, could likely mean that the gendered nature of August’s job data persists. Many women cannot return to work without these policies, which endanger the economic security of millions of women and their families. It’s time to act.

Rose Khattar is associate director of rapid response and analysis in the economic policy program at the Center for American Progress.

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