The pandemic hasn’t stopped college-educated women from outpacing men in the U.S. workforce

Since the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a notable turnaround in the labor market — among college-educated women.

Women make up more than half of the college-educated workforce with bachelor’s degrees or higher than they were before the COVID-19 outbreak, according to an analysis of federal data released this month by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, DC. Pandemic: 31.3 million in Q2 2022, or 50.7% of the labor force, up from 29.1 million in 2019.

The number of employed men aged 25 and over with a university degree also increased in the same period from 29.1 million to 30.5 million, although not to the same extent. “The change occurred in the fourth quarter of 2019 and remains so today, despite the severe recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a general decline in the size of the country’s workforce,” said Pew Senior Researcher Richard Fry.

There is a lot of emphasis on labor force participation – amid fears of people leaving the labor force – and whether labor force participation will return to pre-pandemic levels, Fry told MarketWatch. “One of the factors driving growth in the female labor force with tertiary education is that tertiary educated women are the only gender and education group whose labor force participation rates are returning to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

“Women with college degrees are the only gender and education group whose labor force participation rate is back to pre-pandemic levels.”

— Pew Senior Researcher Richard Fry

The pandemic took its toll on both men and women. But the overall proportion of women with college degrees in the labor force has remained unchanged since before the pandemic, while for men it has actually declined. And the employment rate of women with college degrees has increased more than that of men over the same period. Briefly, Fry cited “changes in the composition of the US population as well as changes in labor force participation.”

Women still face barriers to entering the labor market and additional challenges once they find a job. First of all, childcare remains an expensive monthly expense for families and single working mothers. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, women with bachelor’s degrees still only make about 70 cents on the dollar compared to the median annual earnings of a man with a bachelor’s degree, and the pay gap for women of color is often much larger. Higher-paying fields such as computers and engineering tend to be male-dominated.

For these reasons, and the fact that men have long held the majority of C-suite and senior management positions, it has also taken a long time for women with college degrees to outnumber men in the workforce. “This shift in the college-educated workforce — as women now make up the majority — comes about four decades after women overtook men in the number of Americans completing a bachelor’s degree each year,” Fry added.

Overall, the job market is on an upward trend. The US added a robust 315,000 jobs in August, showing that companies still have a big appetite for labor even as the economy slows and fears of a recession mount. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, rose to 3.7% from 3.5%, the government said this month, mainly as more people entered the labor market in search of work. That was the highest unemployment rate in six months.

(Jeffry Bartash contributed to this report.) The pandemic hasn’t stopped college-educated women from outpacing men in the U.S. workforce

Brian Lowry

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