Why Is It So Hard to Understand Women and Work?

Getting at the Undervaluing of Women's Paid Labor in National Statistics

I was trained as a development economist - with a flair for the household and, as such, I learned about the concept of labor supply - the idea of willingly selling one’s time or effort outside the home to a business or boss in exchange for, usually, money. My passion for understanding gender, poverty, and inequality has always been woven deep within my education and is the lens I use to interpret lots of data.

So, here we are, May 2021. After the shock and awe of last Friday’s jobs report, economists went into overdrive trying to understand their flawed forecasting. New jobs not reaching anywhere near 1 million in the U.S., but rather a measly 328K. The modest increase entirely driven by men, as women’s labor shrunk by -83K. Most women exited the labor force all together (219K) causing women’s unemployment to actually go down from 5.7 to 5.6%.

I have lots of sympathy for macroeconomists who forecast because looking into a magic crystal ball to pull out a best guess on what will happen is only as good as the assumptions we make going in and, at least to me, this seems like a very risky business. And I am sorry to say, that when it comes to women and work, we seem to have very few, if any, assumptions about them and their complex lives. This, in turn, makes it extremely challenging for us to figure out where employment numbers may be headed during a national crisis that drives women and care providers into the home…and lingers.

I’m reminded of Caroline Criado Perez (2018)’s award winning book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline argues, very convincingly I might add, that as it relates to data, women live in a man’s world. Data is collected based on male perspectives of how the world works, what drives it, and what we need to know. With regards to national statistics on labor market data, I think she might have a point.

I’ve been following the jobs data now for a while because I know that women, especially mothers, continue to struggle to make it all work under the weight of a pandemic life, even as we move into a recovery. Because nuanced statistics on women and work are not readily available to the public, I’ve been running the employment numbers for mothers (and fathers) of school-age children, mothers with children under 5, and women age 25 to 54 without children under age 18 in their household since the pandemic started. The raw non-seasonally adjusted numbers look different by group.

Table 1. Monthly Change in Number of Women in Active Work Status by Parental Status, Non-Seasonally Adjusted (per 1,000)

Source: Current Population Survey, U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics (ipums.org)

Since January, women age 25 to 54 without dependent children had seen increases in active work - until April (Table 1). Active work means they were not on leave from a job, not unemployed, and not out of the labor market. For mothers of school-age children, on the other hand, the numbers decreased between January and February, as well as between February and March. This is why I argued that perhaps, for women, we have achieved getting the low hanging fruit out to work (those without dependents). However, if we only look at 2021, the April numbers run against that, with mothers of school age children increasing active work status but not enough to stall the overall decrease in women’s employment.

Women’s employment is seasonally volatile month-to-month. Yes, due to seasonal types of jobs and employment, but also do to daycare needs of children when they are not in school. It makes sense that mother’s active work status increased in April compared to March. It always does since lots of parents take leave in March for spring break.

Perhaps a more interesting question is how do the numbers in Table 1 compare to a non-pandemic year - say 2019? I run a simple analysis where I compare the difference between the first month of the pandemic (March 2020) with a future month and compare that difference to the same difference from 2019. Is job growth on par, slower, or faster than it was in pre-pandemic 2019?

Table 2. Change from March 2020 Compared to Pre-Pandemic 2019 Levels

Source: Current Population Survey, U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics (ipums.org)

Table 2 shows us that even though moms gained jobs between March and April 2021, it was still below the number of jobs they had gained between those months in 2019 and, as such, we still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels of active work status for mothers. Women without children, on the other hand, almost caught up to their 2019 selves in March, only to backtrack in April.

This type of analysis only emphasizes that national statistical agencies need to stop living in a data world driven primarily by men. We need to improve our national statistics as it relates to our understanding of women and work. We need national estimates broken down monthly not only for women age 20+, but also for women living with own school-age children, women living with own children under age 5, and women living without children.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I am every conservative uncle’s feisty niece (love you uncle Brad!), and as such, let me just say that I need our male driven society to care enough about my job, my brains, my talent, and my expertise to be willing to support not only better statistics on women and work, but also comprehensive systems of accessible childcare for my children while I work.

For change to happen, I need you to care about me. And by me, I mean all women and men with children. I am tired of (mostly) privileged men in politics refusing to discuss childcare as infrastructure while they have been free riding this whole time - having childcare for their children freely provided by wives, mothers, and other family members or having enough financial privilege to privately purchase childcare on the market.

I can anticipate our uncles’ responses. I get their (and Mitt Romney’s) traditional arguments, but I know too much about the effect of who controls the purse strings in a family on each household member’s future wellbeing to buy into the myth of the American stay-at-home housewife. Not to mention that in today’s society it is only the wealthy who can really afford to have just one working-age adult engaged in paid labor outside the home; not convinced, read this.

As a society, we need to do better. As a start, we can encourage our national statistical offices to produce data that represents the nuanced lives of women (and men) so that policymakers can begin making better, more informed decisions.

Note: Any errors and all opinions are solely those of the author and not the U.S. Census Bureau.