This July 22nd ABC News article about women dropping out of the workforce grabbed my attention today.  There’s been a lot of anecdotal hoopla in the last couple of years about the “opt-out” revolution, positing that women are voluntarily leaving their careers behind to stay at home.  A Congressional study on the topic released last month found that the American economic downturn is to blame, and that the numbers of women entering the workforce is on a decline for the first time in 50 years.

Among other findings, decreasing salaries for women have prevented many from finding employment.  As women contribute to an average one-third of family income, their absence in the workplace could have long-term negative effects on the economy.  Although women in the manufacturing industry have been hit the hardest, the report discovered that women in every demographic have suffered the effects of this backslide.  ABC’s article includes the following analysis by Tory Johnson:

How big of a difference is this?

It’s an enormous difference.

It erases more than 12 years of gains in terms of women joining the workforce. That translates into 4 million more women in their prime earning years who would normally be in the workforce now, but are not.

We’ve been hearing for the past few years that women were “opting out,” choosing to stay home to raise their kids. But this new research shows that’s simply not true. Women have dropped out for gender-neutral reasons: an economic downturn that brought layoffs, outsourcing and even pay cuts, which has made the decision to drop out a fairly straightforward one for many women. And it has nothing to do with motherhood. 

Is there a pattern based on level of education, race or marital status?

No. This study finds that the trend is across the board for women: white collar/blue collar; single/married; black/white; with teens or with toddlers. Everyone is affected.

What effect does this have on the family?

It’s not good at all. Women are no longer able to act as a financial safety net. Women typically bring home a third of their family’s income, and of course single mothers are the sole breadwinners in their households. So this leaves those families very vulnerable.

And, in past recessions, when a woman was not working and her husband lost his job, she could go out and get a job to fill the gap. But that is no longer the case now that women are experiencing job losses as steeply as men.

What is the single most important thing to do for women who want to get back into the workforce?

Retraining. More than 1 million women have lost manufacturing jobs since 2001. These women found that jobs available to them paid less, so many of them said forget it. If they want to get back to work in a different field and at a higher wage, they need more education and new skills.

While everyone is affected, it’s no secret that lower-income families are hit the hardest, and that these are the people with the least access to affordable healthcare, childcare, and education.  I don’t think that any of us are shocked by the findings of this study, although it’s a relief to see the focus on women’s participation in the workforce broadened to include lower-income families and the effects on the economy as a whole.  I suppose the follow-up question is, what is Congress going to do about it now?