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Getting moms to return to the labor force will require thinking ’outside of the box’: Economist

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Misty Heggeness, U.S. Census Bureau Principal Economist, joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Kristin Myers discuss women in the labor force.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Let's continue this conversation now on women in the labor force. Again, more than 160,000 women left the job market in April. And the unemployment rates are even more uneven, at least when looking at race. Hispanic women, that labor force down 5%. And overall, Black female unemployment-- or employment levels-- excuse me-- are 7.7% lower than they were before the pandemic. That's the biggest shortfall amongst all women.

So I want to chat about this more with Misty Heggeness, US Census Bureau's Principal Economist. Misty, thanks so much for joining us today. So we have some of these figures, Emily was highlighting some of them just a moment ago, and they sound alarming. What is the biggest concern or worry as you're looking at this in terms of the long-term impact of so many women leaving the labor force?

MISTY HEGGENESS: Yeah, so thank you for having me. I think this is such an important topic. And you know, one thing that I think is clear is that the pandemic has really been hard on all of us, but it has been particularly hard on mothers who have been doing double and triple duty since we've all kind of descended into our homes.

And so I think for moms to get back out in the labor force, it's really going to require us to think outside of the box and understand that the traditional ways in which we think about markets these days in terms of employment might not get us to our end goal. And so we look at the-- the virus, and we think about how we've kind of had this two-prong approach, you know, the low-hanging fruit, getting people vaccinated, those people vaccinated first.

And now, you know, it's a little bit more difficult, and so we're looking at how can we extend, reach to some of the folks who are a little bit more difficult to get vaccination-- vaccinations in their arms? I think we need to be thinking along those lines in terms of women and employment. So basically, the low-hanging fruit, the ones who aren't heavy with other dependent activities in their household, are-- have more easily gotten back out to work.

But now we've got to get the moms who do have school-age children, who do have small children in their home back out to work. And that's going to require employers to think about this a little bit differently and to think about what are some of the policies and the tools that they can equip themselves with to create attractive jobs for society as a whole, but particularly for mothers?

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And speaking of mothers in particular, nearly 1 and 1/2 million of them are still missing from the workforce. So let's talk about what we can do about getting them back into the workforce. What can employers do to incentivize these women and have them understand that going back into the workforce is going to be, overall, a better decision for them and their families?

MISTY HEGGENESS: Right. So there's a lot of opportunity here to focus on things that maybe are small nudges but have a big influence. One example is when employers within an agency lead by example, in terms of taking leave to-- for care responsibilities, leading by example in an organization oftentimes lets the employees breathe a little bit and understand that if they do have to take their kid to the dentist, they're not going to get dinged for it.

If they do have to deal with virtual school at home while they're working that their employer is amenable to that. We need to get schools back open, and not the hybrid type of schooling where kids are in and out of school. That doesn't work for a working mother. We need schools back in-person full time as soon as possible. And we need to provide supports around that so that parents can also engage in work before and after school.

And I think these are really important concepts, especially with Mother's Day coming up. It's really important for us all to really value the undervalued work of mothers in our society and the way in which they help hold us up. And I think one thing we can do for them is really take this seriously and think through what are the opportunities that we have to make work easier for working moms?

KRISTIN MYERS: Misty, how long do you think it will be before we see a reversal of some of these trends of women in the workforce, of working mothers leaving the workforce? How long?

MISTY HEGGENESS: So I don't know if anybody knows how long exactly, but I can tell you that the longer they are out, the harder it is going to be for them to get back in. And so I think one of the worrisome trends right now is for mothers who were previously working before the pandemic, they live in a household that's middle or upper-middle class, and they are exhausted from the pandemic rat race. And so they've decided to just stop working.

And they can make that choice because there's another working-age adult in their house who's-- who's bringing in enough income for that family to survive. Those moms might never come back. And the longer they're out, the less likely they are to come out-- or-- sorry-- to come back. And so I think that this is something that we need to really take seriously. That is untapped potential that we-- that our economy is just leaving on the table if we do not get those women to engage back and work.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, you're talking about something called "lean out," these women are leaning out as opposed to leaning in. We know Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook made that phrasing pretty popular a few years ago. But is this breaking down along sectors, meaning are there particular sectors where we're seeing working mothers not returning to the workforce so much?

MISTY HEGGENESS: You know, I think the way that it breaks down in sectors is just in terms of the traditional composition of gender in sectors. So this-- this problem is a universal problem for anybody who has school-age children. And this is not specific to the type of job that you have. The only caveat to that is that it is potentially more feasible for mothers who can telework to keep their jobs than it is for moms who have to go out of the home to work.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Misty Heggeness, US Census Bureau's Principal Economist. Thank you so much for joining on-- joining us-- excuse me-- on this very important topic.