Closing The Gap

Nearly 400,000 women joined the labor force in May—and women of color led the charge

Portrait of Machinery factory owner with digital tablet while standing in workshop.
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The U.S. economy added 390,000 jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far exceeding the 328,000 new hires economists had predicted and signaling that the labor market is still hot despite fears of an impending recession. 

May also showed promising signs for women's economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. An estimated 397,000 women entered the labor force last month, bumping women's participation rate to 58.3%, just one percentage point below their pre-pandemic labor force participation rate, reports the National Women's Law Center

Such gains were prominent for women of color. About 176,000 Black women, 135,000 Latinas and 134,000 Asian women joined the labor force month, compared to just 100,000 white women. 

All groups, however, experienced a spike in unemployment last month, driven by an increase in the number of women actively seeking work: Latinas (3.8% to 4.7%), Asian women (2.4% to 2.5%), Black women (5.0% to 5.9%), and white women (2.8% to 2.9%). 

The NWLC estimates that it would take about four months of job growth at May's rate for women to recoup all of their job losses since the pandemic began. There are still 656,000 fewer women working or actively seeking a new job now compared to February 2020 — a marked improvement from April, when close to one million women were still missing from the labor force. 

Women gained nearly half (46.4%) of the new positions created in May, securing jobs in the education and health services sector as well as leisure and hospitality, but losing jobs in government and retail trade. 

Much of women's economic recovery has been driven by hiring in the leisure and hospitality sector. Of the more than 11 million jobs that women have regained since the start of the pandemic, more than 3.6 million (32.9%) are in leisure and hospitality, the NWLC found. 

But leisure and hospitality is a sector with "high turnover, low wages, limited access to employer-sponsored benefits and unpredictable schedules," says Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC's director of research.

"It's great that women are gaining jobs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that these are good quality jobs, and they're able to support themselves, or their families, with them," Tucker adds. 

A separate report published by the NWLC earlier this week noted that the typical annual wages for a woman working full-time in the leisure and hospitality sector were just $30,000 compared to men's $36,500 in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. 

The average hourly earnings for women working in leisure and hospitality are also far below the average hourly earnings in many other sectors such as construction, education and health services, and manufacturing. 

Despite May's overall strong jobs report, employers shouldn't take their foot off the gas with hiring and retention efforts targeting working women, Tucker says. As she notes: "We're moving in the right direction with economic recovery, but we've still got a long way to go." 

 Check out:

The reasons for the $3.2 trillion gender investing gap, and how to bridge it

The 10 U.S. cities where women are most likely to earn $100,000 or more

How Glow Recipe's co-CEOs turned their friendship and $50,000 into a $100-million business

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