After months of slow job growth, the economy came roaring back to life in October, adding 531,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. October was a promising month for women re-entering the workforce, too, as nearly 57% of the new positions created went to women, reports the National Women's Law Center.
It's a significant improvement compared to September, when men gained all of the month's new jobs and more than 300,000 women left the labor force, the largest drop-off of women from the workforce since September 2020, according to the NWLC analysis. In October, however, women gained the most jobs in the retail trade, leisure and hospitality and education sectors.
"Overall, this report is good news for women," Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the NWLC, tells CNBC Make It. "We're definitely turning things around here." The BLS's latest report arrives two months after many children returned to in-person classes at the start of the school year and the same week the CDC cleared Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, two events that Tucker believes could encourage more mothers to re-enter the labor force.
Still, she adds, October wasn't a perfect month for working women. "It's important to pay attention to where jobs for women are being added," she explains. "Many jobs in retail and hospitality, for example, don't offer benefits or high wages, and the long, demanding schedules make it difficult to arrange child care."
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
The Great Resignation and ongoing labor shortage, however, have pushed many companies to improve working conditions for employees. The average hourly wage for leisure and hospitality workers, for example, increased from $17.12 per hour in October 2020 to $19.04 per hour only one year later.
At October's rate, the NWLC estimates that it would take about eight months for the economy to gain back the nearly 5 million jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic. Several groups saw a rise in unemployment between September and October, including white women (3.7% to 3.9%), Asian women (3.4% to 4.4%) and Latinas (5.6% to 5.7%). Nearly 1 in 3 women (32.6%) who were unemployed in October had been out of work for six months or longer.
This spike in unemployment was driven by women re-entering the labor force in high numbers, but not yet landing a job, Tucker notes. Women's labor force participation rate is up to 57.3% from 57.1% — but while 292,000 white women and 114,000 Latinas joined the labor force last month, 52,000 Black women left.
There's no clear answer to explain why this disparity exists. The pandemic has made the job market extremely volatile, in turn making economic recovery inconsistent and unpredictable. "It's hard to discern exactly what's going to happen month-to-month," Tucker says. "But I'm worried about these women finding new opportunities, because Black women continue to face hiring discrimination, and if they've been unemployed for long periods of time, they could feel even more discouraged from applying to jobs."
Emily Martin, the vice president for education and workplace justice at the NWLC, suggested that employers can help retain and recruit more women at their companies by granting employees more flexible work schedules, being transparent about work responsibilities and reviewing their paid time-off policies. "All of these things are really important to ensure that people with caregiving responsibilities don't lose their job when their kid has to suddenly quarantine after a school exposure or a relative falls ill," Martin told CNBC Make It last month.
Continual job growth will be a bellwether for how women are faring in the wake of the pandemic — but "we also want to make sure that the jobs being added are good, quality roles," Tucker points out. "If the Great Resignation has shown us anything, it's that people are tired of the status quo and want something better … it's up to employers, and all of us, really, to meet that need."
She continues: "We need women to come back to the labor force — they make up half of our economy! — we can't afford to neglect them anymore."
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter