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Idaho women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men during the pandemic

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Cara Starr is glad to be back cutting hair at her Boise Bench salon Haven Hair Lounge, but everything is not back to normal.

After officials allowed salons to reopen earlier this year, Starr, 41, and her husband both headed back work. But her 13-year-old son enrolled in West Ada Schools stayed at home alone. This arrangement worked well enough for a few months, but then school started again and Starr started reducing her load at the salon to be with him during school hours to help with his social isolation, homework and technical issues. 

[Idaho Millenials and restaurant workers hit hardest by COVID-19]

She cut back on her days at the salon and changed her schedule multiple times to try and juggle her time with her son and her small business. She’s wondering how long she can keep going as a business owner, or if she should sell and try to find a job she can do online from home to be with her son full time while he navigates online and in-person learning for months to come. 

“It’s so hard to say when we’re still in this limbo of ‘will we go back to normal or not?’” she said. “I can hang on for a little while, but not for another year. I never know what’s going to happen next.”

Women bucking the trend of record workforce participation

Starr isn’t alone. As the pandemic drags on and virtual learning tests students and their parents, women across the country are cutting back on their hours or leaving the workforce entirely to stay home with their children at a higher rate than their male peers. 

Idaho hit a record high for workforce participation in September with 65% of Idahoans older than sixteen either working or actively searching for a job. That’s the highest level since August 2010. But, one demographic is leaving the labor force while others are joining: women between 35 and 54. 

Between September 2019 and September 2020, the participation rate for women from 34-44 dropped from 77.7% to 69.2%, a decrease of 8.5%. In the same time period, women aged 45 to 54’s participation rate decreased from 74.6% down to 70.4%, a drop of 4.2%. This comes from a monthly survey conducted by the Department of Labor to learn more about trends in Idaho’s economy. 

Because of the way the data is collected on a monthly, the sample sizes are too small to compare the workforce participation rates of women and men in this study, according to Department of Labor Research Karen Jarboe Singletary. But, women between 35 and 54 are the only age group showing deep drops, while other demographics, including men are showing flat rates or even steep increases.

Because of the way the data is collected on a monthly, the sample sizes are too small to compare the workforce participation rates of women and men in this study, according to Department of Labor Research Karen Jarboe Singletary. But, women between 35 and 54 are the only age group showing deep drops, while other demographics, including men are showing flat rates or even steep increases.

Jarboe Singletary said it is too early to tell the full impact of the pandemic on women in Idaho because of the way the data is collected. But, she said the high number of Idahoan women working in service industry jobs means they are more susceptible to the rapidly fluctuating economy caused by the pandemic and more likely to stay home to wait out the virus. 

“I think we have a little bit of a higher participation rate for women than in some states, so we might see a little bit less of an effect here than other states would, but it’s definitely a concern, especially with a lot of the service industry types of jobs that were most affected by the pandemic, there are more women who are in those jobs than there are men in those jobs,” Jarboe Singletary said. “They might be disproportionately affected not because of the convention or expectations of who’s going to stay home and figure out the homeschooling with the kids, but those jobs are the most up in the air right now.”

Setting women back

Another concerning metric Jarboe Singletary saw in September was an unusually high number of Idahoans who left their jobs. She said this bucks the trend of any other recession, where workers tend to stay in their job due to the uncertainty of the market. Anyone who left a full-time job to search for a part-time job would fall under this category. 

Between August and September, 865,000 American women left the labor force, according to the National Women’s Law Center. In the same time period, just 216,000 men quit their jobs or stopped looking for work. An annual study from global management consulting firm McKinsley & Company found one in four American women are considering reducing work hours, moving to part-time, taking leaves of absence from work, switching jobs or quitting altogether last month. 

Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment & earnings for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said the lack of jobs available during the recession and women being more likely responsible for childcare and other home responsibilities than their male partners is combining into a perfect storm for women to leave the workforce. Women being more likely to work in lower paying jobs than men also is a factor, leaving couples who need to pick a parent to stay home with children more likely to choose the woman because they can do without her salary more easily. 

She said there are two scenarios. Either the economy rebuilds from the pandemic with more equitable parental leave policies and childcare funding, or women will be set back for decades.

“In that case it is likely that women will be held back for a considerable time by employers’ assumptions that they are less committed than men, more likely to take on care responsibilities, and less worthy of career development and promotions,” Hegewisch said. “Under those circumstances the pay gap will widen.”

Making hard choices

Katie Painter supervises her children while they complete homework for virtual schooling. Photo by Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev.com

BoiseDev interviewed half a dozen women across Ada County for this story. Some reported doing work at night for their businesses because they homeschooled their children by day. One mother described taking her son with her to work at her small business, and juggling virtual schooling while running her store. Others dropped down to part-time work or delayed taking on more hours like they had originally planned. 

Katie Painter, 42, in Garden City was already working remotely for a company doing curriculum writing for adult education programs when the pandemic hit. She dropped down to part-time hours during the summer with plans to go full time in the fall, but once her elementary school-aged kids went back to school virtually Painter had to delay her return to 40 hours per week. 

Her husband also works part-time, so they juggle supervising homework for their daughter and son, who are 6 and 8, on their opposite schedules. They also watch the daughter of a neighbor whose mother cannot work at home while she completes her schoolwork during the week. 

Luckily Painter was able to get FMLA benefits for a short time to make up a chunk of her lost income and her employer on the East Coast is understanding, but she’s worried about losing ground in her career by being part-time for the fall. 


“The biggest risk that could happen is not enough work is getting done with me part-time and we hire another person to do some of the work and when my kids do get back to school, that job opportunity won’t be there for me because it will be given to someone else,” she said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but if this drags on long enough I could have to find a way to go full time.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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