The share of American women working for pay is currently at an all-time high, with a recent analysis revealing that the increase has been driven by mothers of children under 5. Despite traditionally working less than other women, this particular group has experienced the largest gains since the pandemic began. This analysis, conducted by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, points to a significant reason for this growth: the newfound ability of certain mothers, particularly those who are married and have college degrees, to work remotely.
Lauren Bauer, a fellow at Brookings and co-author of the analysis alongside Sarah Yu Wang, described the situation for married, well-educated women with young children as “crazy.” These women have always seen themselves as workers and were already on an upward trend before the pandemic, which they have continued to follow.
For example, Julia Keintz secured a job in analytics at Zillow two years ago when her children were just 6 months and 11 years old. One of the reasons she chose this job was that Zillow, since the start of the pandemic, has allowed employees to live wherever they want and work flexible schedules. Although she lives outside of San Francisco, where Zillow has an office, she rarely goes in. This arrangement has allowed her to avoid the inconvenience of bringing breast milk pumping supplies to and from work and has saved her 90 minutes a day in commuting time. She can now provide an after-school snack for her older child, take him to sports practices, and assist with bar mitzvah preparations.
In previous jobs, Keintz felt that she had to navigate the juggling act of work and parenting all on her own and feared she might have to quit if she couldn’t manage. She stated, “It always felt like a secret, like I was an exception.” However, at Zillow, the company explicitly promotes flexibility, making it the first company she worked for where this flexibility was clearly articulated.
The increased participation of women in the American workforce began to rise rapidly in the 1970s alongside the women’s movement. By the 1990s, it exceeded 77 percent for those aged 25 to 54, thanks to changes in welfare and the earned-income tax credit that encouraged more women to work. However, this progress stagnated, even as other countries continued to see growth in women’s employment. Economists attribute this to the lack of family-friendly policies in the United States, such as paid leave and subsidized childcare. Additionally, employers have started to expect availability around the clock, which creates challenges for working parents.
Overall labor force participation, including mothers, experienced an increase in late 2019 just before the pandemic, thanks to a combination of low unemployment rates and state and local policies that facilitated job searching. Currently, 77.7 percent of women aged 25 to 54 are employed, reaching a new peak and indicating that the closures of schools and childcare facilities during the pandemic did not erase decades of progress in women’s employment. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, more mothers with both preschool and school-age children are now working.
Several factors have contributed to this increased workforce participation among women in recent months. Temporary federal expansions of paid leave and childcare subsidies during the pandemic, along with some states and cities making similar benefits permanent, have played a role. A tight labor market has also made jobs more attractive, while inflation has made a higher income more essential. Additionally, ongoing cultural shifts, such as women attaining higher levels of education, delaying childbirth, and investing more in their careers, are influencing this trend.
According to researchers, one significant change that has had a profound impact on parents is the ability to work remotely, especially for those with office jobs, and the increased flexibility in when and where work is performed. These pandemic-driven changes have benefited other groups as well, including individuals with disabilities who are also experiencing record levels of employment.
Becca Cosani started working as a health insurance consultant when her oldest daughter, now 3, was a baby. The constant travel required in her consulting job made it a “scary move,” especially with a husband whose business can’t be run from home. However, when the pandemic struck, client meetings were moved online, making travel unnecessary and more efficient. She now works from her home office in Missouri City, Texas. During breaks, she tackles household chores and errands, which gift her extra time to spend with her children once they’re home. She can easily attend to her children’s needs, such as picking them up from preschool, without the commutes and travels of pre-pandemic times. Cosani finds great joy in walking her children home from preschool, taking the time to stop and appreciate nature, an experience she wouldn’t have had if she were commuting or traveling: “It is just the joy of my life to be able to do that.”
The analysis focused on mothers of infants and toddlers, a demographic that requires significant hands-on care, revealed that remote work has benefited them the most. Among college-educated mothers with children under 5, 80.3 percent are currently working, compared to a previous high of 77.4 percent at the end of 2019. Nearly half of them stated in federal surveys that they worked remotely at least once a week, a significantly higher proportion than any other group.
Women with lower levels of education, as well as unmarried or Hispanic women, are more likely to have jobs that cannot be done remotely, such as retail clerks or health aides. Although this group has largely returned to work, their employment rate remains below pre-pandemic levels. For instance, mothers with young children and a high school diploma or less currently have a 54.4 percent employment rate, compared to 56.1 percent in late 2019. These workers are also least likely to have employers that offer family-friendly benefits or spouses with flexible working hours. To ensure that all workers benefit, researchers argue that government policies addressing these issues are necessary.
Misty Heggeness, an economist at the University of Kansas, emphasized the need to focus on women who cannot work remotely, stating, “If anything good can come out of our awareness and understanding of that, it’s how can we build better social policies and social and structural supports.”