For both men and women, the labor force participation rate dropped more than 3 percentage points from January 2020 to April 2020. However, after many in-person activities came to a halt in the last year, job sectors historically dominated by women – like leisure and hospitality; education and health services; and retail trade – were hit particularly hard.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks reasons people are not in the labor force, including those who want a job and are available to work, but haven’t searched for work in the past four weeks. Data shows that men and women have quite different reasons for not continuing to look for work.
For the month of November 2021, men made up over 60% of those “discouraged over job prospects” compared to women. Conversely, among those who cited “family responsibilities” as reason for exiting the workforce, nearly two-thirds were women. Women were 1.5 times as likely to be “in school or training” compared to men as well.
But COVID-19 has simply exacerbated an existing trend: Women have been leaving the workforce for over 20 years now.
Women’s participation in the labor force has been on a steady decline since the late 1990s. According to a report from USAFacts, women’s participation peaked in 1999 at 60%, but has fallen to 56% in 2021. In those same years, men’s participation was 75% and 68% respectively.
The ratio of labor force participation rates between women and men can be used to measure the disparity between the two. While women’s labor force participation did peak in 1999, men’s participation has declined more rapidly than women’s since then. As a result, the gap between men’s and women’s participation in the workforce has continued to shrink, and was the lowest it’s ever been in 2020 and 2021, with women participating at 83% the rate of men.
U.S. News uses this same ratio in our Best States program as part of our Equality rankings, one of the many factors within our overall rankings. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey allows us to measure the ratio state-by-state. Using data from their 2019 release, the states with the highest ratio are Vermont (95.3%), Wisconsin (94.5%) and Minnesota (94.4%). The states with the lowest ratio are Utah (84.3%), Texas (84.5%) and Alabama (87.0%).