• The pandemic is associated with an increase in some gender disparities in the labor market, whilst the gender pay gap has remained steady.
  • Among adults 25 and older who have no education beyond high school, more women have left the labor force than men.
  • Women earned 86% of what men earned based on median hourly earnings in the third quarter of 2021.
  • On average, men are working fewer hours in paid jobs since 2019, but women’s hours are unchanged.

The COVID-19 recession resulted in a steep but transitory contraction in employment, with greater job losses among women than men. The recovery began in April 2020 and is not complete. As of the third quarter of 2021, the labor force ages 25 and older remains nearly 2 million below its level in the same quarter of 2019.

The pandemic is associated with an increase in some gender disparities in the labor market. Among adults 25 and older who have no education beyond high school, more women have left the labor force than men. Other disparities have stayed the same or even narrowed: The gender pay gap has remained steady, for example, and the difference in the average hours worked by men and women has slightly diminished.

Overall, the number of women ages 25 and older in the labor force has fallen 1.3% since the third quarter of 2019, similar to the 1.1% decline of men in the labor force.

Among less-educated adults, labor force decline has been greater for women than men from 2019 to 2021
Labor forces age 25 and older, in millions.
Image: Pew Research Center

But this modest overall change obscures divergent outcomes for labor force members with different levels of education. Women who have no education beyond high school exited the labor force in greater numbers than similarly educated men. However, the pandemic has not interrupted the long-running gains of women among the college-educated labor force.

From the third quarter of 2019 to the same quarter of 2021, the number of women in the labor force who are not high school graduates decreased 12.8%, dwarfing the 4.9% contraction among comparably educated men. The pandemic also disproportionately affected women with a high school diploma. The ranks of women in the high-school-educated labor force have declined 6.0% since the third quarter of 2019. The labor force of similarly educated men has fallen only 1.8%.

Among the labor force with at least some amount of education beyond high school, women have fared at least as well as men. The number of men and women in the labor force who have some college experience but not a bachelor’s degree has contracted for both groups, with no strong disparities between the two. Both men and women with at least a bachelor’s degree saw positive gains in the labor force (2.7% and 3.9%, respectively) from 2019 to 2021.

What accounts for the larger labor force withdrawals among less-educated women than men during the pandemic? It is complex but there seems to be a consensus that it partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic. Although women overall are more likely than men to be able to work remotely, they are disproportionately employed in occupations that require them to work on-site and in close proximity to others.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

It is less clear whether women’s parental roles and limited child care and schooling options have played a large role in forcing them to exit the labor market. The number of mothers and fathers in the labor force has declined in similar fashion over the past two years.

Turning to the number of hours employees work per week, on average, there have been small changes associated with the pandemic and they have occurred among men. In the third quarter of 2021, women ages 25 and older worked 37.5 hours on average in paid employment, unchanged from how much they worked two years earlier. Men ages 25 and older worked 41.6 hours on average in the third quarter of 2021. That is 0.7 fewer hours than they worked pre-pandemic (42.2). So, the disparity in hours of paid employment between women and men workers has somewhat narrowed.

On average, men are working fewer hours in paid jobs since 2019, but women’s hours are unchanged
Among those ages 25 and older, average hours worked in a week.
Image: Pew Research Center

The pandemic is also not associated with a widening of the gender pay gap. Among full- and part-time workers ages 25 and older, women earned 86% of what men earned based on median hourly earnings in the third quarter of 2021. Two years ago, the estimated gender pay gap was 85%.

The overall pay gap partly reflects that employed women have higher levels of education than employed men. In 2021, 48% of women workers ages 25 and older had completed at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 40% of men. Workers with at least a bachelor’s degree tend to earn more and thus women’s earnings are boosted by their greater educational attainment. The gender pay gap is greater when you look at groups of women and men with equal levels of education. The gap depends on the education level, but in 2021 women ages 25 and older earned closer to 80 cents on the dollar compared with equally educated men.

The gender pay gap has not widened during the pandemic.
Median hourly earnings of women as a % of men's median among employed ages 25 and older.
Image: Pew Research Center