The Economy Is Shrinking for Women. That's Why We Need Build Back Better | Opinion

This month's jobs data is a timely reminder that there is no economic recovery without women.

In September, women lost 26,000 non-farm jobs, while men gained 220,000 non-farm jobs. This gender disparity in job outcomes comes at a time when Congress has an opportunity to pass the historic Build Back Better plan and change the course of women's employment. Congress can act now to improve the economic security of millions of women and their families by passing long-overdue investments in care infrastructure and ensuring not just more jobs, but more better-paid and high-quality jobs for women.

While overall declines in the unemployment rate are welcome, this data point must be understood in context: Many women have been forced to stop their job search this month. The latest jobs data saw 296,000 fewer women in the labor force, compared to August. It means that women's current labor force participation rate dropped to 55.9 percent—with white, Black and Hispanic women all experiencing declines. This represents the largest monthly drop since last September.

Many women have been forced to give up their job search or stop working due to caregiving obligations for children or the elderly. But women without children at home also continue to experience job losses, a reminder that a lack of good paying jobs in female-dominated occupations continues to affect women's economic standing.

With labor force participation rates equivalent to rates seen 30 years ago, Congress must use its power to change this troubling trajectory.

The pandemic has only worsened existing gender inequities in the labor market, accelerating and continuing a trend of a decline in women's labor force participation. Since the early 2000s, women's labor force participation rates have been largely declining and have never been equal to men's. More than 100 leading economists recently called on Congress to invest in child care, which would significantly lower families' child care costs and help return mothers to work. The United States is one of the only countries in the world without guaranteed paid leave, and spends only $500 per child on early childhood care—considerably less than other economically comparable countries.

It is well known that these kinds of investments help mothers to return to paid work or work more paid hours, and a lack of care infrastructure has been partly responsible for decades of declines in women's labor force participation.

California Job Market
California employers are adding new jobs at a record-breaking pace even as the state's unemployment claims remain stubbornly high, a sign the Delta variant could be giving people pause about returning to work. A "NOW HIRING" sign is posted in the window of The Wharf Chocolate Factory at Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, Calif., Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

The pandemic also showcased the expected consequences of occupational segregation, with women concentrated in pandemic-affected sectors like child care, which is yet to fully recover. Our care industry, which was struggling even before the pandemic, is still recovering from a historic disruption, with child care shrinking by 109,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic.

Moreover, despite having the highest labor force participation rates among women, Black women in particular continue to face instability because the jobs simply lack adequate pay, benefits, and security.

A lack of good paying jobs has long affected women's economic security. Without robust investments in the paid caregiving sector, Congress will fail to meet the needs of millions of families and help women return to and stay in paid work.

The Build Back Better agenda supports and improves job quality in women-dominated occupations from child care to home care to preschool educators, which have always been undervalued and underpaid, partly due to a history of gender and racial discrimination. After proposed investments in the Build Back Better plan, higher wages and 1.1 million jobs supported in these sectors can help lift the living standards—and reduce longstanding racial and gender pay gaps—of nearly 1 in 20 working women and 1 in 11 employed women of color.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor market was filled with gender and racial inequities. Biden's Build Back Better plan will help women return to work, and improve the jobs that many will be returning to, helping them keep working.

The latest jobs report is another example of the predictable consequences of the United States' history of a lack of investments in the economic security of women, and in particular women of color. Now Congress has the chance to make it right.

Rose Khattar is the associate director of rapid response and analysis for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The views in this article are the writer's own.