Although data shows more women are returning to the workforce now, they’re still doing so on the back foot. Amid the encouraging news, the reality is women are returning to many of the same issues that have long plagued the workplace, well before the pandemic – and their future is more uncertain than men’s.

The enduring lack of pay parity is one issue. While July 2023 data from the BLS showed that the wage gap is the lowest it has been since 1979, women still make just 83% of what men earn, and that figure widens for black, Hispanic and indigenous women as well as women 35 years and older.  

Also, in homes with male-female partnerships, Kriegel says much of the domestic labour still falls on women, just as it has in the past, regardless of whether they are in the workforce. For one, this makes them highly susceptible to burnout, which was a leading cause of women leaving jobs during the pandemic. And if women find they are unable to balance both work and home demands when they take new jobs, they will likely be the first ones out, prioritising their male partners’ higher salaries.

The uncertain future of both the workplace and public health at large also means women are more vulnerable than men to future job loss.

For instance, the remote- and flexible arrangements that have enabled many women back to are threatened as executives are now calling workers back to the office, often mandating attendance with the consequence of job loss. If a return to majority in-person work becomes unavoidable, women who need the flexibility to both remain in the workforce as well as perform caring and home duties face a major problem.

Even if women are able to retain their necessary arrangements, they may be affected by proximity bias or flexibility stigma – phenomena in which bosses advantage in-person workers whom they can see, even unconsciously. Kriegel says this is especially the case if “their employers are overtly saying that in-person work is superior to remote work, or if they work remotely more often than men”.

Gina Cardazone, research principal at LeanIn, agrees the situation is precarious. She warns that if unemployment increases, employers may gain more power, ultimately giving employees less of what they want – which could be a direct hit to women.

As the economy remains uncertain, the progress women are making in the job market is encouraging, but also precarious. Ultimately, we shouldn’t ignore the good news for women workers. But it’s just as important to understand this progress is hanging by a thread, especially if employers don’t rise to the occasion.

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