Challenges Faced by Women in the California Workforce

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This presentation, which was originally featured in the Bay Area Council’s Opportunity for All Summit 2.0: The Role of Gender Equity in the Economic Recovery, explores how COVID-19 has heightened the barriers and tradeoffs that many women face when participating in the workforce. As of April 2021, 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 1.6 million men. The disproportionately large number of women leaving the workforce reflects how the disruption to daycare centers, schools, and other unmet and unpaid family care needs caused by the pandemic has had a particularly acute impact on working women. The presentation explores gender inequities in the California workforce, presenting labor force data broken out by gender across race, ethnicity, age, wage level, and occupation to understand how different groups in the state experience gender based workforce inequities.

The top line points from the presentation include:

  • The difference in labor force participation between women and men is minimal in younger demographics, but the disparity jumps to a double-digit percentage point difference among Californians in their late 20’s and onwards. The average age of mothers when they have their first child in California is 28, which falls right into the category where the big jump is seen, where the difference in participation rates between men and women increases from 2.1 percentage points among 20-24-year-olds to a 13.3 percentage points difference among 25-34-year-olds.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of family child care facilities in California decreased from about 26,000 in 2019 to about 12,000 as of July 2020.
  • California has an underrepresentation of women in traditionally higher paying roles such as STEM occupations, CEO roles, and manager roles. Less than a third of California’s STEM and CEO positions are held by women, and less than half of all managers in California are women. This in turn perpetuates the gender wage gap, a gap that is far more significant for Black and Latinx women.
  • During the pandemic, many low-wage occupations that were considered essential in which frontline workers were employed, have pay gaps between mothers and fathers employed in the same occupations. Additionally, in almost all of these frontline occupations examined, over half of the mothers employed in the occupation are women of color. Even in industries dominated by women, such as childcare and home health aides, there is a significant wage gap between mothers and fathers. Among childcare workers mothers make 70 cents on the dollar compared to fathers and among home health and personal care aids mothers make 85 cents on the dollar compared to fathers.
  • Research has also shown that in the U.S. more mothers than fathers experience career disruptions. Types of child and family care disruptions that the research examined range from reduced work hours, taking significant time off, quitting a job, and/or turning down a promotion. Interestingly, quitting a job entirely is actually where the difference is most extreme between mothers and fathers – there is a 17 percentage point difference between the share of mothers that reported quitting to care for a child or family member and the share of fathers that reported the same.
  • While men’s earnings pre-child and post-child change very little, research has found that in the U.S. and other peer nations women see a sharp decline in wages after having a child. In the U.S., income declines as much as 40 among mothers by the time the first child is two. Those who have investigated this trend call it the “Motherhood Penalty”.


Despite all these barriers and inequities, there is a proven economic benefit of having women in the workforce. Economists often cite female labor force participation as the most significant change in the labor force in the past century. In the U.S., across the entire country labor force participation among women nearly doubled, from about 33% in 1950 to a peak of nearly 60% in the early 2000’s. However, that growth in participation was not even across all metro areas, and research shows that across U.S. metro areas, there is a correlation between higher female labor force participation and real wage growth. The benefit is not just for women, median wages increased across the board in locations with higher female labor force participation.

California has been a leader in the past in terms of supporting women in the workforce, it was the first state in the nation to pass paid family leave legislation, and analysis has shown that that policy has increased Californian mothers’ likelihood of being employed 9 to 12 months after childbirth, and has resulted in higher wages and work hours among women in the early years of the children’s lives. Coming out of the pandemic it’s important for California to continue to lead the nation in supporting women in the workforce as a state and as employers within the state during this period of economic recovery and beyond.