2.7 Million Women Out of the Labor Market Since December 2019


Over 2.1 million women have left the labor market completely since the onset of the pandemic March 2020, 20% more than the number of men who have done the same. Since December 2019, 2,687,000 women left the labor force, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The drain of women talent from the labor market will be a disaster for employers across the country unless they help staunch the exodus, according to one workplace authority.

“Alarm bells should be ringing at companies across the nation right now. The necessity of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is at the height of importance for boards, shareholders, current employees, and consumers. Unless employers can bring back or retain their women talent, future recruitment efforts, as well as future economic success, will be compromised,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior Vice President of global outplacement and executive and business coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. (related: A She-cession? Women Hit Hardest in COVID Downturn)

In addition to the sheer number of women exiting the labor market, women’s gains in leadership roles stalled somewhat in 2020. According to a study by Catalyst, women in senior leadership roles at companies globally stood at 29% in 2020, the same as it was in 2019. A separate study by Mercer of 1,100 companies found women made up just 23% of executive roles in 2020.

“Three years after the #MeToo movement pushed the importance of representation of women in the workplace to even greater prominence, and often showed the grim consequences of not having enough women in positions of power within organizations, we now find ourselves in a possible years-long recovery of women talent. Employers can be part of the solution by bringing back and retaining women,” said Challenger. (related: The Reckoning: 2017 & Sexual Misconduct)

“One key way to retain women is to fill the talent pipeline and offer mentorship and leadership opportunities. If someone feels valued and is on an upward career trajectory with adequate support from leadership, she is much less likely to leave the organization,” he added.


More women did seem to ascend to the chief executive role in 2020, though not nearly on an equal measure with their male peers. According to Challenger tracking, 22.7% of CEO replacements were women, the highest the firm has ever recorded. It is a full percentage point higher than in 2019, but just .2% higher than in 2018. Currently, 37 women lead Fortune 500 companies, the most on record, though far fewer than the 463 men who lead these companies.

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.



Child care was a major issue for working parents in 2020. As the country fell into a lockdown in March, parents were forced to facilitate learning or care for non-school-age children, as well as perform their jobs from home. Often the bulk of the responsibility fell to women.

“Many two-parent families looked at salary as the deciding factor in who would continue to work. Since women tend to be paid less than their male counterparts and fill roles in industries that earn less money overall, many women left the labor market to take on the expanded child care responsibilities,” said Challenger.

“Meanwhile, for single mothers the decision was equally, if not more, difficult with even fewer options,” he added.

Indeed, according to non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9,490,000 women who maintained families without a spouse were employed in December 2020, down from 9,771,000 in February. The number of employed women who maintained families fell to its lowest point in the last ten years in May, with 7,768,000.

Meanwhile, 1,591,000 fewer women who are married with their spouses present were employed in December 2020 from March 2020: 35,109,000 in December compared to 36,700,000 in March. This number dropped to 32,034,000 in April, the lowest point of the year.


In addition to promoting women and equitable compensation, employers can ensure their hiring practices do not discount women applicants, especially as the pandemic creates employment gaps for millions.

“Hiring managers often discount applicants with any kind of employment gap, instead seeking candidates with a continuous work history. This practice removes whole swaths of qualified candidates who tend to gain valuable insight and life experience from these gaps,” said Challenger.

Child care is another area employers can use to help attract women talent right now, though it is often not a benefit companies offer. In 2018, some major companies announced child care options in the face of a tight labor market, but a Challenger survey conducted that year in June found that of the 150 companies polled nationwide, 16.7% offered some sort of child care assistance to attract and retain talent and 4.8% offered onsite child care. (related: Childcare In The Age Of COVID-19: How Companies Can Support Working Parents)

Similarly, a 2019 survey of employer-offered benefits conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found 11% of companies offered a child care referral service, 4% of companies offered a subsidized child care center or program, and another 4% offered a non-subsidized child care center either onsite or nearby. Of the companies polled, 3% allowed infants at work.

Challenger offered the following tips for employers to help retain and attract women talent.

  • Create a culture that values women talent. Potential candidates will notice if there are no women in the C-suite, on the board, or in any position of authority. In fact, the NASDAQ is pursuing rules that will delist companies that do not have at least one woman on their boards.
  • Share responsibilities. Let women talent know they are not entirely alone. Train employees to know each other’s duties and create back-up staffing plans for essential tasks. Have teams share projects so they can cover for a parent who has an emergency arise.
  • Share the costs. Re-examine paid leave policies. Consider subsidizing childcare or emergency childcare. Provide referral options for daycare services.
  • Pay attention to employees’ health. Managers should check in on workers to assess their emotional health and make sure they are handling the stress well. Advocate for time off, encourage breaks, and pass along referrals for counseling if needed.
  • Encourage supportive work relationships. Foster conversations that matter so that employees can connect more deeply and work together towards solutions and alternatives that will help the employees, and in turn will help them be more engaged and productive.
  • Examine workloads. Reduce the total number of hours needed to work, especially if goals can still be accomplished. Reprioritize goals so only essential ones are the focus.
  • Be flexible, especially now. Recognize the extraordinary circumstances occurring in our world and workplace right now. Give leeway when possible as women grapple with balancing the stress of a pandemic, familial obligations, and their professional careers.


For women who have left the labor market and want to transition back as the pandemic subsides, Challenger advises keeping track of the accomplishments and skills gained during this period. Many mothers have learned new technologies through facilitating online video learning and navigating information-sharing platforms like Blackboard. Many designed and implemented curricula. They also planned and executed events in accordance with CDC guidelines when scheduling playdates or getting family together.

For women who are not parents but left due to a dearth of jobs, include your proficiency in Zoom or other video conferencing technologies. Describe any online classes, even taken for fun, such as art or music classes. If caring for a loved one for health reasons, include tasks performed in this process, especially if applying for a health care or related role.

Challenger's Media Coverage

Job losses indicate we are in a ‘she-cession’

Andy Challenger talks with NPR Marketplace about the disparity.

Andy Challenger speaks with NPR Marketplace about female job loss

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More than 84% of companies are offering some flexibility during the pandemic, according to a new survey from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.


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