Women's labor comeback : The Indicator from Planet Money Lots of women left the workforce early in the pandemic. At the time, there were fears these women would stay out of the workforce for years, if they returned at all. But women's participation in the labor force, between the ages of 25 and 54, is at an all time high.

Check out more of NPR's Scott Horsley's reporting on women's return to the workforce. And listen back to our previous episodes about women leaving the workforce in 2020 and why many women didn't immediately return.

For sponsor-free episodes of The Indicator from Planet Money, subscribe to Planet Money+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

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Women's labor comeback

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong, and today we have a very special indicator that comes from NPR economics reporter Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hey, great to be with you. I have brought an indicator today that is 77.8%. That's the share of working-age women in the U.S. who are in the workforce. That is, they're either working, or they're looking for work. And that figure, 77.8%, that is the highest it has ever been.

WONG: Well, I'm a woman in the workforce, so I am part of this milestone.

HORSLEY: You certainly are. Yes. Congratulations.

WONG: Oh, thank you.

HORSLEY: And it's all the more remarkable that we're hitting that post given where we were just three years ago.

WONG: Right - because if you remember back, millions of women lost their jobs when the pandemic forced shops and restaurants to close. And what's more, economist Betsey Stevenson says many more women who still had jobs were forced to quit, largely because of family responsibilities.

BETSEY STEVENSON: You know, I had a woman come up to me and say that she didn't want to quit her job, but her kids didn't have in-person school. And she couldn't think of any other solution. And she was driving home from having given her notice, and she's in the car bawling her eyes out, thinking, I can't believe I've done this. This wasn't people who got discouraged and left. These were people who left because they had no other choice.

WONG: Yeah, I didn't have to make that kind of decision, but I certainly know women who did. And it was just a really brutal time for everyone trying to manage virtual school and job stuff and other things all at the same time.

HORSLEY: And I did some reporting at the time. I mean, I spoke to a lot of women who were reluctantly leaving the workforce because just as Betsey says, they didn't feel as if they had another option. And at the time, there was a lot of concern that this was going to have a lasting effect on the ranks of working women, that they might stay out of the workforce for years. But as it turns out, women have bounced back from the pandemic even more quickly than men have.

WONG: So today on the show, the rapid rebound of women in the workforce - that's coming up after the break.

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HORSLEY: The share of women age 25 to 54 who are working or looking for work right now is the highest it has ever been. What that means, it's not just women who dropped out during the pandemic who have come back into the workforce. We've also seen a return of women who might have left the job market years ago - people like Deandrea Rahming.

DEANDREA RAHMING: I was very apprehensive. I was like, can I do this? I've been out since 2008.

HORSLEY: Deandrea told me she quit working when her second son was born. Well, he's now 15. She also has a 4-year-old daughter. And while she had always planned on coming back to work someday, Deandrea worried if employers would want her after such a lengthy absence.

RAHMING: Are they going to look at me and say, oh, you've been out of work too long? And then with a woman it's always, you have kids - do you have daycare? Are you reliable? Are you going to be punctual?

WONG: Now, employers are not supposed to ask those questions, but plenty of women worry about the answers.

HORSLEY: So Deandrea was pleasantly surprised to find out that in today's super tight job market, when unemployment is close to a 50-year low, employers are eager to hire people, even those who've been out of work for a while. When she returned to work in Fort Lauderdale, Deandrea was surrounded by this wide range of coworkers. There were other moms who had teenage kids like herself. There were 20-somethings who were just starting out, and there were older workers whose kids maybe already left the nest.

RAHMING: It really helped me come out of my shell, and it really is my anxiety of coming back to work after being at home for so long.

WONG: Deandrea says while her husband earns a good salary as an accountant, adding a second income was a boost for their family budget, especially with a hungry teenager at home and grocery bills of 3- to $400 a week. But it's not just the paycheck that makes her proud to be back in the workforce.

RAHMING: I come from a very long line of modern women. My grandmother, she raised six kids by herself after her and her husband divorced, and she was always working. That's just been inbred in me so much that it's just, like, second nature for me. So going back and working and being able to just fulfill that accomplishment of I can do this - I still can run with the best of them.

WONG: The pandemic was also a wake-up call for a lot of employers. Bosses who used to treat work and home life as completely separate spheres suddenly got a crash course in the challenges that working parents have always faced.

HORSLEY: Wailin, remember that BBC video that went viral a few years before the pandemic? There was this professor. He was being interviewed, and his toddler daughter comes waddling into his office on live TV.

WONG: Yeah, and then there's a second kid who comes in on an exersaucer (ph). It's so funny.

HORSLEY: It was a sensation at the time. But I think about that - nowadays that video would not get a second glance because, as Christine Winston says, now we have all been there.

CHRISTINE WINSTON: The silver lining of the pandemic is that everyone started to understand the ways that caregiving and career intersect because everybody was at home with their 5-year-old or their 8-year-old who was doing school on Zoom.

WONG: Christine is vice president of an organization called Path Forward. It helps women who are out of the workforce for some time get back in. Christine says she used to have to twist companies' arms to give her clients a chance. Now she says employers come to her in search of would-be workers they might have otherwise overlooked.

WINSTON: A lot more employers became aware of the challenges, and a lot more employers became aware that there was this huge pool of talent on the sidelines.

HORSLEY: Christine herself was out of the workforce for about nine years while her two sons were younger. And after a long period of caregiving like that, people might not be up to speed on the latest software, for example. But Christine says they still have a lot to offer to a potential employer.

WINSTON: Caregivers are master multitaskers, master project management, working in groups, negotiation skills. I always say if you've ever negotiated with a toddler to put on their shoes, you are a ninja negotiator (laughter).

WONG: I'm going to put that on my LinkedIn profile.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

WONG: Of course, juggling work and family responsibilities has never been easy, and the country's rickety child care industry does not help. There are about 50,000 fewer people working in child care now than there were before the pandemic, and it's not as if it was easy to find affordable care for kids even back then.

HORSLEY: Yeah, and the situation could get worse. Twenty-four billion dollars in federal grants that have been propping up that rickety child care system for the last couple of years are set to run out this fall. But as hard as it is, economist Betsey Stevenson, who's at the University of Michigan, says many people are managing to find workarounds. And she thinks that's partly because employers in this tight job market are more willing now to cut their workers some slack.

STEVENSON: One of the things that had to happen - I - really had to happen in order to bring these women back was employers had to be desperate.

WONG: Betsey says that's given workers some leverage to demand more flexibility.

STEVENSON: Workers have had a lot of bargaining power, not just for higher wages but to say, you know, I can't come in five days a week, or I got to be able to pick my kids up from school and then I can go back to working remotely.

HORSLEY: And by the way, Betsey says that newfound flexibility has been good for a lot of working fathers as well.

STEVENSON: A lot of dads learned that leaving the house before the kids get up, getting home just before they go to bed, not really being present, that's not what they wanted. But they hadn't been able to figure out how to do something different.

WONG: This could all change if the job market softens. Employers might grow less willing to make accommodations for their workers. But Betsey thinks that would be a mistake. The last couple of years have shown that flexibility doesn't cost companies all that much, and it opens the door for a lot more people to join the workforce.

STEVENSON: If we need to keep adding jobs, where are the workers going to come from? And yet what we've seen month after month is they are showing up to take the jobs. And in particular, it's women showing up to take the jobs.

HORSLEY: That's been good for women and for their families. It's also been good for the growing U.S. economy.

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WONG: This episode was produced by Brittany Cronin with engineering by Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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