Millions of women have left the workforce since March : The Indicator from Planet Money Of the 1.1 million people who left the job market in September, over 860,000 were women. Today we look at why women are dropping out of the workforce and what it will mean for the economy.
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Why Women Are Leaving The Workforce

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Why Women Are Leaving The Workforce

Why Women Are Leaving The Workforce

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Cassie Gafford knew she wanted to be a dentist from a young age.

CASSIE GAFFORD: Yeah. I decided in high school that I was going to be a dentist, and then I became a dentist.

VANEK SMITH: It wasn't an easy path. The training was really intense. After college, there were four years of dental school and a year of residency.

GAFFORD: Dental school is very grueling. You would have classes from 8 to 5, all lectures. And then you have all this extra work practicing your hand skills - you know, drilling on fake teeth - sometimes until, like, 10, 11 at night. It's a long day. It's a long year. It's a long four years. And it feels like it's never going to end, and then all of a sudden, it does. And you're a dentist.


Cassie joined a private practice in Philadelphia, and she loved the job. And last year, when she and her husband had their first child, dentistry fit in perfectly. It has regular hours, and so Cassie and her husband got into this great routine.

VANEK SMITH: Cassie would feed their daughter breakfast. Her husband would drop their daughter off at day care. Cassie would go to work. Then when she got home, she would cook dinner with her husband, and she would put the baby to bed.

GAFFORD: We got into a great routine. I saw my daughter for probably, like, an hour and a half a day, and we just had a great time. And then the pandemic hit.

GARCIA: Cassie's dental practice closed as part of the mandated shutdown, and her daughter's day care also closed. And since Cassie's husband was able to work from home, Cassie was left in charge of full-time child care.

GAFFORD: I would say that the difference between going from talking to adults all day to talking to a 15-month-old was the most dramatic change. And it's so much harder to take care of a little child than it is to interact with 20 adults even if they're upset or in pain or need work done at the dental chair. A nine-hour workday is nothing compared to taking care of a little child.

VANEK SMITH: The dental practice remained closed for months. But over the summer, the economic lockdown relaxed, the practice reopened, and Cassie's boss gave her a call.

GAFFORD: He said, can you start back up in two weeks? And I had to get back to him and realized that, no, I could not get back to him positively because I had to take care of my family.


GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Millions of women have dropped out of the workforce since the pandemic began back in February. That means they've left their jobs or they've stopped looking for work entirely.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, we look at what this means for women and for the economy. Also, we look at the long-term effects. Will things go back to where they were when the pandemic comes to an end?


GARCIA: Cassie Gafford says that when her boss asked her to come back to work, it started off a long series of conversations with her husband. There were a lot of things in the mix.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. First and foremost, Cassie's daughter was hospitalized with pneumonia in January, so Cassie and her husband were very worried about the possibility of their baby getting COVID. And that meant sending her to day care would be really dicey, so they decided one of them needed to be home and take care of her full-time.

GARCIA: And economically, it made more sense for Cassie to keep working. She earned the most money. And also, Cassie had never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.

GAFFORD: I went back to work eight weeks after my child was born, rearing to go, really ready to go back to work. I love my daughter. I really do. I also love working.

GARCIA: And also, Cassie's husband kind of loved the idea of being a full-time parent.

VANEK SMITH: But then there was the health factor. Their baby was potentially high-risk for contracting COVID. Cassie's husband could work from home, and Cassie couldn't. What's more, Cassie's job involved a lot of intimate contact with patients, like her hands in their mouths. And even though she was always vigilant about PPE, there would still be some risk.

GAFFORD: We'd talk about it over and over again, which is one of the more stressful things in our marriage. So, yeah, it was just a calm conversation about me - with me, on the one hand, worrying about my future as a dentist; him, on the other hand, worrying about our daughter being alive next year. And while, you know, I was worried about my daughter, too, there's a part of you that just kind of wants to forget, obviously, that the pandemic is existing. And you just want things to go back to normal, and it's just not reality. It was just easiest for me to stay - continue to stay home.

GARCIA: This is the exact situation that millions of women across the U.S. are experiencing right now. That's according to Martha Gimbel, an economist at Schmidt Futures who studies the labor market. Martha says a lot of women do choose to stay home with their children. It's what they want to do.

VANEK SMITH: But right now a lot of women are leaving their jobs who do not want to. They are forced to by circumstance. They are making a bunch of impossible calculations about their children's health or education versus their own careers.

MARTHA GIMBEL: The problem is that right now a lot of women don't really have choices, right? They can't send their kids to school. Someone has to supervise the learning. Someone has to deal with the cooking. Someone has to deal with the cleaning, and it's falling onto them. And so they can't make choices that they want to make because they're being restricted in all these ways.

GARCIA: Martha says that women are experiencing this more than men are, and there are a few reasons for this - for one thing, cultural precedent. Martha says that although things have changed tremendously for women, in heterosexual couples at least, child care and housework still tend to fall more on women.

VANEK SMITH: Also, because women generally get paid less than men do, if a couple is making an economic decision, it often makes more sense for the woman to stop working. As a result, the share of women in the workforce is the lowest it's been in decades.

GIMBEL: The women's labor force participation rate is down to where it was, you know, about in 1988, which is the year after I was born. So (laughter) I, Martha Gimbel, have now witnessed since this pandemic began all of the progress that women have made since soon after I was born gone.

GARCIA: Gone - and it probably won't come back very quickly.

VANEK SMITH: Right because even when the pandemic ends and offices and schools and day cares and businesses all reopen and even if all the women who left the workforce are suddenly in a position to come back to work, it might not be so easy, says Martha.

GIMBEL: The problem is that we have a lot of evidence that when you take time out of the labor force, it can be very difficult to get back in. And the other aspect of this is you are not then making progress in your career. You are not getting promoted. You are not building out skills and experience that will cause future employers to pay you more money.

GARCIA: Cassie Gafford says that she absolutely wants to go back to being a dentist, but she's worried that she won't. She already feels like there would be a big barrier to going back even though she has years of experience and even though her boss explicitly told her that she could go back.

VANEK SMITH: Cassie has started doing a little teaching, which she really enjoys. And she says she's just really loving spending time with her daughter, watching her develop and grow and just hanging out with her. And she says she's a little bit scared that she won't want to go back to work even when she can.

GAFFORD: You know, I was joking to one of my colleagues about how I felt like a dentist. But it makes me really sad, and it makes me question my decisions - the fact that it does take so much schooling to get to become a dentist. It does take so much effort, and I feel like I'm kind of throwing that all away. It's not low-grade anxiety. It's high-grade anxiety. I am constantly worried about my career and the trajectory of my career.

I know that it's hard for - I can imagine it's hard for anyone to enter the workforce after being gone for so long, and I hope that I can overcome those hurdles. You know, I really - I've always wanted to be a dentist, and I was a dentist. I still am a dentist, but I'm not practicing in the way that I always thought I would. And that's a little demoralizing. And yet I know it's the right decision for my family.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and Jamila Huxtable. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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