Gender Differences In Unemployment Trends: Race, Jobs And The Economy Update For February 2024


A special Women's History Month edition of NCRC's Race, Jobs and the Economy series.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) monthly jobs report and the ADP National Employment Report provide a deep look into employment and income. The February BLS report has the unemployment rate at 3.4% for White workers, 5.6% for Black workers, 3.4% for Asian workers and 5.0% for Hispanic workers.

In this edition of our Race, Jobs and the Economy series analyzing the monthly jobs numbers, we focus on women in the workforce to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Analysis of Topline Figures in the February BLS Report

The economy added 275,000 jobs in February according to the BLS, beating the consensus of 200,000. The unemployment rate rose by 0.2 percentage points to 3.9%. 

Jobs & Sectoral Trends

The industries with the largest employment gains were healthcare (+67,000), leisure and hospitality (+58,000), government (+52,000) and food services and drinking establishments (+42,000).

Industries that employ large numbers of women had mixed results. Healthcare employs a quarter of all working Black women and led the pack in February followed by leisure and hospitality. On the other hand, retail trade, another large employer of women, added just 19,000 jobs in February.

The prior two BLS reports – for January and December – showed a large drop in the unemployment rate of Black men. That good news evaporated in February: The Black male unemployment rate has jumped back up, from 5.3% to 6.1%. 

Black women, meanwhile, saw unemployment rates fall 0.4 percentage points to 4.4%, tied for a pandemic-era low. For Hispanic workers, the opposite occurred: Women lost ground while men made gains. The unemployment rate for Hispanic women increased 0.7 percentage points to 5.0% while their male counterparts experienced a 0.9 percentage point decrease to 4.0%.

ADP, a human resources and payroll services firm, released their own separate employment report earlier in the week. ADP found 140,000 private sector jobs were created, slightly lower than the BLS figures. ADP also noted improving wage growth for job changers – those employed in both the current and previous month, but now at a different employer than previously – increased to 7.6%. 

Women and the Labor Force

The increased presence and expanding role of women in the labor force is one of the most significant economic developments of the last 100 years. In 1950 the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for women was 34%. Seven decades later, 57% of women are in the labor force. The radical shift in the role of women in the American economy since post-World War II social and policy efforts to return women to homemaker roles as men returned from war reflects a complex story of labor history, progress and challenges which inform current labor trends for women in the economy. 

Historical Context

Historically, “women's work” was confined largely to domestic duties and unpaid labor within family businesses. The early 20th century set the stage for that to change. The suffrage movement won women the right to vote (though this achievement was initially reserved only for White women). Despite the racially exclusive nature of this pre-Civil Rights Movement victory, the suffragists’ success helped advance a broader push for equality, including the right to participate fully in the workforce.

While these efforts were ongoing, Black women in particular faced a dual struggle: challenging not only racial terrorism and racial discrimination but also an underappreciated ‘Jane Crow’ experience: The racialized and gendered nature of class exploitation that confined specifically Black women to menial and servile jobs. Civil rights activists and suffragists like Nannie Helen Burroughs championed efforts to make education and employment opportunities available to Black women. 

An educator and religious leader, Burroughs believed that women should be afforded job training and employment opportunities and not be bound to the domestic work that many Black women were confined to during this time. In 1909, Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls (later renamed the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls) in Washington, DC. The school provided a rigorous curriculum including academic courses and vocational training to Black women from all over the world. This innovative model was the first of its kind. Burroughs ran the school until her death in 1961. In her lifetime, Burroughs had a deep commitment in improving economic opportunities for Black women. 

Alongside fellow educator, women’s rights activist and civil rights pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune, Burroughs co-founded the National Association for Wage Earners (NAEW) in 1921. The NAEW operated a factory producing items available for mail order such as hats and dresses. Burroughs and Bethune aimed to improve the living conditions of Black women and increase efficiencies for Black workers, particularly migrant workers. Their work helped to shape the progress that women saw in the workforce in the years that followed.

The early-20th century groundwork put in by Burroughs, Bethune and their peers shaped Black women’s standing at the outset of one of the great convulsions in the history of the American economy. During World War II, women joined the workforce, many for the first time (in the officially-tracked sense of earning a wage to work outside of their homes). Millions of women took on roles supporting the war effort in factories, hospitals and offices. 

As the war ended, so did the free flow of jobs for women. The post-World War II era brought considerable change, as women who had filled essential roles during the war sought to retain their positions in peacetime. This period also saw the emergence of the second-wave feminist movement, which fought for equal rights in the workplace, leading to landmark legislation such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, which prohibited gender discrimination in employment. These movements shaped the modern participation of women in all sectors of the labor force, where the struggle for equality and representation continues to this day.

The Current State of Women in the Labor Force

An honest analysis of the labor force reveals surprising trends and persistent disparities among women, shedding light on the complex relationship between gender, race, and employment. For example, women on average have lower unemployment rates than their male counterparts. In the latest jobs report, this relationship reversed slightly as the rate was 3.9% for women and 3.8% for men. This slight difference in unemployment rates lies within a much more significant gender contrast in labor force participation:  Women have a significantly lower LFPR of 57.6%, about 10.1 percentage points lower than men.

The labor experiences of Black and Hispanic women workers differ from White women, and vice versa. For example, Black women have the highest LFPR of the three groups at 59.1%, 3.6 percentage points more than White women. The 77.9% LFPR of Black mothers is even further above that of White mothers (72.3%). Unfortunately, while Black mothers have the highest LFPR of all mothers, their unemployment rate is also the highest of all working mothers. These disparities highlight the racialized and gendered outcomes of women in the labor force and the need for policies that boost the economic mobility of mothers and single mothers, a task NCRC is currently pursuing.  

Black women’s employment experience also differs from that of Black men in one key regard: There are more employed Black women than employed Black men. This disjuncture is partly driven by incarceration and the exclusion of Black men in employment. And it’s a statistic that doesn't just worry economists. In a 2022 poll commissioned by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 80% of Black women respondents reported being extremely or very concerned about the high rate of joblessness among Black men. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing disparities in the labor market, significantly affecting women. Before the pandemic, in the fourth quarter of 2019, the employment gap between men and women stood at 5.3 million. This figure widened to 6.7 million by the third quarter of 2020, reflecting the pandemic's uneven toll. Industries with high numbers of women – such as the accommodation and food services sector and the arts and entertainment industry – suffered much more severe job losses than sectors traditionally dominated by men, such as manufacturing, transportation and warehousing – which, in contrast, gained jobs. 

The impact of the pandemic on women workers was distributed unevenly by race and ethnicity. Latina workers suffered most in the initial shock of the pandemic, their employment numbers dropping 30% from February to April of 2020. Latina employment levels also recovered more quickly, however, and by May 2022, Latina employment was back to its pre-pandemic level. Black women, by contrast, didn’t regain their pandemic losses fully until January of 2023. Interestingly, White women were even slower to regain their pre-pandemic levels of employment at the end of 2023 – a statistical lag caused primarily by the pandemic retirement boom.

Women workers contribute to every sector of the economy, yet their representation varies significantly across different industries. In the realm of healthcare, education, community services and personal care, women dominate the workforce, constituting 75% of healthcare practitioners, 73% of educational and library professionals, 70% of community and social service workers and 75% of personal care services employees. 

However, this participation does not uniformly extend to all roles within these sectors. For instance, in more specialized and higher-paying positions such as dentistry, women represent only 40% of employees, whereas in roles such as medical records specialists, they make up 89%. This disparity underscores a broader economic trend where women are less represented in higher-skilled and better-compensated occupations.

One of the most pervasive issues is the gender pay gap, where women, on average, earn 84 cents for every dollar a man earns. This disparity is even more pronounced for women of color and those in marginalized communities, illustrating how intersectionality compounds discrimination. 

Another significant challenge is the societal expectation for women to primarily shoulder caregiving responsibilities for children and elderly family members, which further complicates their ability to fully participate in the workforce. This often means women must choose part-time work or endure temporary career breaks that adversely affect their career trajectory, earnings and retirement savings. 57% of eldercare providers are women, and according to a report by the BLS, mothers suffer a 15% reduction in lifetime earnings due to unpaid family caregiving – amounting to some $295,000 in lost wages and retirement income over a lifetime.


Although women have made remarkable progress in the workforce, there is still a clear and persistent gender wage gap, undermining economic security for women and their households. This hurdle is even higher for Black and Latino women. And it is so entrenched that it carries over regardless of qualifications: Even with the same educational attainment and within the same profession, women earn less on average than their male counterparts. 

Women still make up over half of all workers in education, health care, hospitality, and other service sector jobs. While there has been an increase in the number of women workers in manufacturing, construction, transportation and utilities, they remain grossly underrepresented in those trades. 

We cannot solve what we cannot see. Pay transparency is vital to broader efforts at closing the gender wage gap. Pay transparency informs a job applicant of roles they should apply for and provides critical insight into negotiation for higher pay. Policy efforts  to encourage and require pay transparency continue in some parts of the country. In the last five years, more states such as California, New York, Maryland, and Washington have enacted pay transparency laws to hold employers accountable. In regions where pay transparency has been required, there has been an increase in employee trust and retention. This is critical for women and other marginalized groups who are often paid less.

Joseph Dean is NCRC's Racial Economic Junior Research Specialist.

Estee Smith is NCRC's Director of Workforce Development.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Scroll to Top