Breaking Barriers: The Surprising Rise of Women’s Employment in the 21st Century

Explore the rise in women's employment and its challenges during COVID-19, and join the discussion on supporting working mothers and gender equality.
women employment

Welcome to a surprising twist in the narrative of women’s employment. As we emerged from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, a remarkable trend unfolded – contrary to expectations, the employment rate for prime-age women in the United States didn’t just rebound; it reached a historic peak.

This unprecedented rise in 2023, as highlighted in an insightful article by the Penn Wharton Budget Model, challenges the gloomy forecasts and showcases a story of resilience and empowerment.

In this exploration, we delve into the interplay of education, motherhood, and societal shifts that have catapulted women to new professional heights. Join us as we unravel this empowering narrative, celebrating a milestone in women’s employment history.

Historical Context and Recent Trends

Tracing the journey of women in the workforce offers an intriguing glimpse into a story of continuous evolution. From the 1950s onwards, women began stepping into the labor market in increasing numbers, transforming not just their personal lives but the entire economic landscape. This progress, however, experienced a plateau after 2000, leading to a period of stagnation.

Fast forward to the present, and the scenario has taken a dramatic turn. As per recent data highlighted in the Penn Wharton Budget Model’s analysis, the employment rate for prime-age women has surged to an all-time high of 75.3%. This landmark figure is not just a rebound but a significant leap from the past, surpassing previous peaks in the spring of 2000 and just before the pandemic. This remarkable growth signifies not just recovery but a new era of women’s participation in the workforce, one that shapes and is shaped by broader societal changes.

The factors behind this surge are multifaceted, but a key driver is the dramatic increase in educational attainment among women. Over the past two decades, there has been a notable rise in the number of prime-age women who hold a college degree, climbing from below 30% to over 45%. This educational shift has played a crucial role in boosting employment rates, as college graduates are more likely to engage in the workforce.

Role of Education in Women’s Employment

The rise in educational attainment among women has been a game-changer for their role in the workforce. Over the last two decades, there’s been a significant shift in the educational landscape for women, as highlighted in the Penn Wharton Budget Model’s report. The share of prime-age women with a college degree has impressively risen from below 30% to over 45%. This increase is not just a number; it represents a profound shift in the workforce dynamics.

woman happily walking at college

Why does this matter? College education is closely linked to employment prospects. As more women attain higher education, their participation in the labor market naturally increases. This correlation between education and employment is crucial, as it doesn’t just elevate the economic standing of women but also contributes to the broader economic development. This trend also reflects a changing societal norm, where the pursuit of education and professional careers by women is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception.

The Changing ‘Child Penalty’

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on working women, particularly mothers of young children. This period has highlighted the persistent challenges and disparities faced by women in the workforce, leading to significant changes in employment patterns.

Steep Declines in Employment for Mothers

woman having a hard time working with her child

Mothers of young children experienced the steepest reductions in employment during 2020. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 1.2 million fewer mothers with children under the age of 13 working in 2020, a loss of about 7% of employed mothers ages 25-54. This drastic decrease underscores the unique challenges faced by mothers, particularly during the pandemic, when balancing work and family responsibilities became even more demanding.

Disparate Impact Based on Child’s Age and Ethnicity

The impact varied among mothers based on the age of their children and their ethnicity. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reports that mothers of very young children and women of color, particularly Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian American women, saw their employment rates plummet during the pandemic. By April 2020, only half of these populations were working. Furthermore, mothers of school-aged children regained lost employment to a lesser extent than fathers, widening the gender employment gap.

Comparing Employment Declines Among Different Groups

Despite these challenges, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reveals that the employment rates of women, irrespective of whether they had young children, did not systematically differ by their parental status. This finding suggests that while mothers of young children faced significant employment challenges during the pandemic, the overall impact on their employment was not drastically different from that of women without young children.

The Shift in Motherhood Dynamics

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a significant shift in the dynamics of motherhood and employment, particularly among college-educated women. This transformation has been fueled by a combination of societal changes and evolving perceptions of work and family balance.

The Pandemic’s Impact

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought unique challenges, especially for mothers. With schools and daycares closing, many women faced the tough choice of juggling work, childcare, and virtual schooling. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 10 million U.S. mothers with school-age children were not actively working at the start of 2021 – a significant increase from the previous year. This situation highlighted the delicate balance between motherhood and employment, with mothers experiencing severe disruptions in their work patterns due to the pandemic​​​​​​​​.

Trends Among College-Educated Mothers

Despite these challenges, a remarkable trend emerged among college-educated mothers. According to research cited by The Hustle, the share of employed U.S. women aged 25-54 hit a record 75.3%. This rise was partly driven by the increasing share of prime-age women with college degrees, and notably, by college-educated mothers with young children, who are now more likely to remain in the workforce. This group saw a 10% increase in employment from the early 2000s to 2023, reflecting a shift in societal norms where balancing motherhood and professional careers has become increasingly accepted and expected​​.

Societal Changes and Work Flexibility

woman working from home

The increase in employment among college-educated mothers is also linked to broader societal changes. The availability of well-paying jobs with flexible options such as remote and hybrid work has played a significant role. This shift in the nature of work has allowed mothers to better balance professional and family responsibilities. Furthermore, changing cultural attitudes, where the traditional view of men working while women stay home is increasingly being challenged, have also contributed to this trend. However, there is still a notable gap, with 95.4% of men with a college degree and a child under 10 being employed, compared to their female counterparts​​.

Implications and Reflections

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light critical insights about the gender dynamics in the workforce, particularly the disparities between men and women. These revelations not only underscore the challenges faced by women but also pave the way for discussions on future trends and actions to bridge these gaps.

Pandemic-Induced Disparities

The pandemic-induced recession saw significant job losses, with a greater impact on women’s employment compared to men. The labor force for women 25 and older fell by 1.3%, a drop slightly larger than that of men. This disparity was even more pronounced among those with no education beyond high school, highlighting the vulnerability of less-educated women in the labor force during crises like the pandemic.

Education as a Protective Factor

Interestingly, the pandemic’s impact varied significantly based on educational attainment. Women with some level of education beyond high school fared as well as men, if not better. The labor force of both men and women with at least a bachelor’s degree saw positive gains, demonstrating the protective effect of higher education during economic downturns.

Unpaid Care Work and Gender-Specific Jobs

A critical factor contributing to the gender disparity in job losses is the burden of unpaid care, disproportionately borne by women. This increased burden, especially during the pandemic, has led to higher dropout rates from the workforce for women. Furthermore, women are often employed in sectors more vulnerable to pandemic-related disruptions, like accommodations, food service, and retail, as detailed in this McKinsey report on COVID-19’s impact.

The Role of Societal Attitudes

female boss

Societal attitudes towards gender roles continue to influence women’s experiences in the workforce. Traditional mindsets about women’s roles can affect organizational decisions and family dynamics, often disadvantaging women in terms of job retention and opportunities.

Future Challenges: Automation and Skill Transition

Looking ahead, the automation of work presents another challenge. It’s estimated that millions of women worldwide may need to transition across occupations due to automation by 2030. Despite the impact being similar for both genders, existing barriers make this transition more challenging for women, potentially exacerbating gender inequality in the workplace.


As we reflect on the journey we’ve navigated through this article, the resilience and adaptability of working women, particularly in the face of unprecedented challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, stand out. We’ve seen how the pandemic has not only reshaped the landscape of women’s employment but also brought to light the persistent challenges and disparities women face in the workforce.

The rise in the employment rate of prime age women to a historic high is a testament to their enduring strength and the evolving societal norms around education, motherhood, and professional life. However, this progress doesn’t mask the steep declines in employment faced by mothers of young children and the disproportionate impact on women of color. These changes remind us that our work towards gender equality and supporting working mothers is far from over.

Now, we turn to you, our readers. How have these trends and changes affected you or women in your community? What solutions or support systems do you believe are crucial for addressing the challenges working women face?

We invite you to share your thoughts and experiences. Your insights are valuable in shaping discussions and policies that support women in the workforce. Together, we can contribute to building a more equitable and supportive work environment for all.

Furthermore, we encourage you to explore WayWiser’s resources and services that support working women, particularly those balancing career and family life. Remember, every story shared, every challenge acknowledged, takes us a step closer to a workforce that is better and stronger than it was pre-pandemic.

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