Recently, we took a look at women’s earnings relative to men’s and established that the Atlanta MSA, like the rest of the country, sees wage disparities. Here, women who have worked full-time for the past 12 months earn, on average, 83 cents for every dollar a man makes. When it comes to explaining – or, some might say, explaining away – this earnings disparity, many researchers point to a job experience gap. This line of thought holds that women tend to leave the workforce to accommodate caregiving needs, primarily for children, and therefore do not have equivalent levels of work experience to men. That gap in experience then translates to a gap in earnings that grows over time.

The first chart below shows the labor force participation rate by gender and age in the Atlanta MSA. It shows that the labor force participation rate for women in their 20s roughly equals men’s in the same age grouping, with women’s participation rate falling off a little in the late 20s. The real story happens in the 30s, however. Here, we see that our MSA’s women’s labor force participation rate drops off significantly while men’s grows, and the women’s rate and stays below men’s throughout all other age groups.

The second chart compares our women’s labor force participation rate to state and national rates. Here we see a very, very small touch of positive news: Atlanta’s rates for women in their prime working years (mid-20s through mid-50s) tend to be slightly higher than the comparable state or national rates. But only slightly.

Data limitations

It’s worth noting that these data come from the American Community Survey’s 2015-2019 rolling averages, and all signs point to the fact that the pandemic has only increased the rate at which women are leaving the labor force, and some evidence shows it is related to child care burdens. The ACS, like most population-level data available at differing geographic levels, has a necessary lag between data collection and release. Typically we’d say that the 2019 data are a reflection of current conditions because demographic trends typically take decades (rather than years or months) to shift, so any year over year differences would be marginal at best. COVID-19, however, has flipped that rule of thumb on its head. As more and more data capturing the upheavals of 2020 and 2021 become available, we fully expect to see the labor force participation gap between women and men to widen further.

Compounding effects

What is often referred to as “opting out” to attend to childcare needs (a phrase that implies choice, and it is receiving backlash … finally) has cascading effects both on individual women and the overall state of America’s workforce. In heterosexual, coupled households, it’s no secret that the woman typically makes less, and when childcare needs hit a tipping point, it’s therefore the woman’s income that is most expendable. While there might not be any such thing as a cost-of-living raise, anyone in the workforce knows that merit-based increases, promotions and other advances in a profession are more attainable with longer tenure in a company and/or career. The pandemic’s magnification of women leaving the workforce will only increase these losses.