Women leaving the workforce: Will this affect the gender pay gap?

ORLANDO, Fla. — The latest unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the post-pandemic comeback continues.

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Last month’s unemployment rate stayed steady at 3.6%.

But recent surveys found millions of women who either lost or left their jobs during the pandemic have not gone back to the traditional workforce.

Experts said that affects more than just those women and has set the gender pay gap back by decades.

The pandemic added an estimated 36 years to the time it will take for women to make the same amount as men, bringing the total to 135 years.

After years of making magic for families and creating her own by meeting her husband and starting a family, Daniela Armendariz lost her dream job at Disney during the pandemic.

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“Getting the news that I was just not going to go back was extremely hard,” Armendariz said.

COVID-19 crushed the childcare industry, forcing frequent day care closures and sending school-aged students home.

Armendariz and millions of other mothers stayed out of the workforce, even as jobs started to come back.

“My oldest was doing first grade, so it definitely meant I needed to stay home with her,” she said.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, Armendariz was one of 5.4 million women who lost a job during the first year of the pandemic -- 1 million more than the number of jobs lost by men.

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“Even before the pandemic, the childcare system was kind of a patchwork quilt of duct tape and hope,” said Mindy Shoss, a University of Central Florida associate psychology professor.

Shoss has been studying the effect of the pandemic on the workforce.

She said COVID-19 forced many families back into traditional gender roles, meaning working moms who perhaps had lower salaries than their partners to begin with took a step back from the traditional workforce either by choice or out of necessity.

“A large-scale survey done suggests that one out of three working mothers have either scaled back or left their jobs or planned to do so,” Shoss said. “That’s about 8 million people. This is quite substantial.”

For some, it was a welcome change.

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Armendariz launched her own business, successfully selling cakesicles and booking months in advance.

Savannah Daigle, another former Disney cast member, turned to full-time freelance work.

“The pandemic really made that the best option for our family,” Daigle said.

Though studies found the loss of women from the workforce set the closure of the gender pay gap back, Daigle points out that for the first time, many women are setting their own rates.

“I’m the one deciding how much to charge,” she said. “So there’s really a lot of power in that.”

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But the loss of women in the workforce means more than just the continued gap in pay.

Shoss points to studies that continually find women to be more productive and that gender diversity leads to greater innovation, better decision making and better employee retention overall.

“This is not just a women’s issue. This is an economic issue. This is a business issue. This is a societal issue,” Shoss said. “And when a large proportion of the workforce -- women -- aren’t able to participate, you lose expertise and knowledge and leadership and all the human capital that people can provide.”

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.

Jason Kelly

Jason Kelly, WFTV.com

Jason Kelly joined WFTV in 2014.