A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 29, 2023

How Remote Work Has Helped Bring Moms Back Into the Workforce

Women are returning to the workforce in greater numbers than men and the data suggest that trend is largely due to the availability of remote work. 

In particular, college educated women with young children are taking advantage of remote or hybrid work to keep their skills up, generate additional family income and avail themselves of career opportunities perhaps not previously open. There are multiple economic and social benefits to this evolution but the question is to what degree employers will continue to make these sorts of jobs available. JL

Olga Khazan reports in The Atlantic:

Economists worried (the pandemic would cause) a “she-cession” scarring female employment for the long term. (But) now, as many women are working as before the pandemic: 57.9% in February 2020 vs 57.7% last month. Women from 25 to 54: 77.6% are in the workforce, compared with 77% before the pandemic. Women whose employment has rebounded the most: (those) whose youngest child is under 5, are highly educated, married, and/or foreign-born. Mothers of young children who have a bachelor’s degree or higher are most likely to be teleworking. 40% of college-educated mothers with young kids teleworked at least one day a week this year.

The year was 2020, and schools abruptly closed. Kids Zoomed into kindergarten, and someone had to supervise them. Disproportionately, that task fell—because of course it did—to moms. So out of necessity, the moms quit their jobs. Thus began America’s first female recession.

Beyond the immediate trauma of job and income loss, economists worried that this “she-cession” would scar female employment for the long term. The thinking was that once women stepped back from the workforce, reentering would be difficult or impossible.

But that appears not to have happened. Recently, the she-cession largely ended—or, at least, women’s employment has seen a robust recov-her-y. (Sorry.) In fact, remote work appears to have allowed mothers of young children in particular to join the workforce in record numbers.

Nearly as many women are working now as before the coronavirus pandemic. Women’s labor-force participation was 57.9 percent in February 2020 and 57.7 percent last month. So-called prime-age women—those from 25 to 54—are working in even greater numbers: More than 77.6 percent of them are in the workforce, compared with 77 percent before the pandemic.

Perhaps more surprising is the group of women whose employment has rebounded the most: Women whose youngest child is under 5 are “powering the pack’s upward trajectory,” a recent Brookings Institution report found. In particular, mothers of young kids who are highly educated, married, and/or foreign-born are working in greater numbers today than before the pandemic. “Labor force participation among mothers with young children who have at least a bachelor’s degree has exceeded its pre-pandemic peak,” the Brookings-report authors, Lauren Bauer and Sarah Yu Wang, write.


The rebound has been so dramatic that, when I emailed Misty Heggeness, an economist at the University of Kansas, she emailed back, “What she-cession.” To be sure, women’s employment did suffer in the pandemic’s early days: Women’s jobs accounted for 55 percent of the 20.5 million jobs that were lost in April 2020, in part because service workers, who are disproportionately female, were laid off in large numbers, and in part because the closure of schools and child care meant that many women stopped working. The pandemic quickly wiped out nearly a decade’s worth of progress in women’s employment.

Now, though, we’re coming off of “hot mom summer,” as Heggeness put it—by which she means high levels of female employment, of course. Several things seem to be driving women back to the workforce. Inflation is high, and student-loan payments are restarting, so many families simply need more money to cover expenses. The labor market is tight, so many women can find jobs with relative ease and negotiate for terms that feel favorable. Child care has finally mostly reopened, so women who want to work are no longer stuck without someone to watch their kids. Also, the pandemic acted as a stress test of sorts, proving to families that they can do hard things. The thinking among many women, as Brookings’s Bauer told me, was something like “the pandemic sucked, but now I can get through anything.”

Another big factor seems to be remote work. Bauer and Wang point out that mothers of young children who have a bachelor’s degree or higher are the most likely group of workers to be teleworking, and married mothers of young kids are among the likeliest groups to be teleworking. These are also the groups that have made the biggest gains in labor-force participation since the pandemic: More than 40 percent of college-educated mothers with young kids teleworked at least one day a week in the early part of this year. “That is so high,” Bauer told me.

Several other data points prop up the idea that remote work is helping women rejoin the workforce. Women’s employment rebounded especially quickly in New England and California, where many jobs can be performed remotely, compared with the Midwest, where in-person manufacturing work is more common. Nearly a dozen women interviewed by The Washington Post recently said that a combination of rising prices and workplace flexibility had prompted them to get jobs.


Across Europe and America, work-from-home days have quadrupled since the start of the pandemic, and 35 percent of Americans who can do their jobs from home now work remotely all the time, compared with 7 percent before the pandemic. Last year, women were more likely to work remotely than men were, and women are generally more interested in remote jobs than men are. Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s chief economist, told me that surveys the job site conducted show that 54 percent of men and 69 percent of women are interested in remote jobs. “Work-from-home is by far the largest change to have happened in the labor market,” Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist who studies remote work, told me.

About 90 percent of the candidate pool at the staffing firm FlexProfessionals is female, says Maura Connelly, the company’s senior recruiting manager. Their preference for remote work is overwhelming: Though some are interested in hybrid work, “nobody I talked to wants to be on site five days a week,” she told me. “Nobody.” The candidates say they want to be able to meet the bus when their kid gets home, or drive the occasional carpool. Connelly says many women might have returned to work recently because the pandemic showed them that remote work is out there—that it exists, and that they could get those jobs.

Though families must still pay for child care when parents work remotely, remote work allows them to pay for less child care. Instead of leaving the house for your commute at 7 and returning at 6, you’re rolling to your home office at 8 and “returning” from it at 5. That’s two fewer hours of babysitter coverage every day.


Kerri Sterowski’s son was just a few months old when the pandemic began, and working full-time didn’t feel safe or practical for her. Instead, she helped watch a friend’s child and did some part-time work remotely. She returned to full-time work in August 2022 because she lives in expensive Northern Virginia and her family was feeling financially pinched. Still, she turned down jobs that would have required her to be in the office most of the time, because she wanted to be around in case her son was sick or had a half-day at school. “If I were to have a job in person, then I would be missing out on a lot of my son’s life,” she told me.

Remote work might also have encouraged new mothers who would otherwise have left the workforce to instead stay in. Rather than see themselves trapped in an office all day, they might have figured out that they can breastfeed around Zoom meetings and knock out memos at naptime. After Mozi Nolte’s daughter was born in October 2020, she and her husband spent two years taking care of her at home, without paid child care, while working full-time. She was worried about the infection risk, and she also wanted to save $2,000 a month on day care. It was hard: Her bosses were very understanding, but there were times when she was on a conference call, changing a diaper, and pumping at the same time.

Now Nolte has child care, but she would never consider a job that requires five days a week in the office. She goes in two days a week, but it takes her an hour and a half each way to get to her office. Doing that every day, “it’s three hours when I could pick my daughter up and do laundry, play with her. The quality of life is just not worth it,” she says.


What’s less clear is whether remote work will continue to boom, and women’s employment along with it. There are currently not as many remote-job openings as there are job seekers who want to work remotely. But Bloom believes the work-from-home trend is shaped like a Nike swoosh: There was an initial post-pandemic drop as even Zoom called some of its employees back to the office a few days a week, and now we’re in the fat, flat part of the swoosh. But soon, he thinks, the trend will be on its way up again as technology improves. Beyond videoconferencing, he envisions a future of virtual reality and holograms that would allow you to interact with colleagues in 3-D. What’s more, newer companies that have always been remote will expand and inspire others, he believes, so the norm may shift away from big offices.

Working remotely has some downsides: A spread-out workforce makes mentorship more difficult, so if women are flocking to remote work, they might lose out on valuable networking and learning opportunities. And it’s not clear that remote work is sufficient to keep women in the labor force. Pandemic-era child-care funding is set to end this month, which might cause some day-care centers to close and some parents to step back from work again. You might not need as much child care when you work remotely, but you do need some.

If the remote-work trend continues, though, and women’s employment stays high, it might mean that in the future, women will face less of a “motherhood penalty” for taking time off when their children are born. “If there are more women who can stay on the track that they were [on] prior to having a baby, or closer to an ideal track,” Bauer said, “then that sets their whole family and her on a different trajectory in terms of her participation, earnings, and career ladder.” Far from a she-cession, we might see a future of prosp-her-ity.


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