December marked another month of sluggish job growth yet slight progress for women re-entering the labor force amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, reports the National Women's Law Center.
The economy added just 199,000 jobs in December, with women gaining about 24% of those new positions. An estimated 321,000 women entered the labor force last month, bumping women's labor force participation rate to 57.8% from 57.5%, according to the Bureau of Statistics' latest jobs report.
"There are certainly some positive signs in last month's report," Julie Vogtman, the director of job quality and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, tells CNBC Make It. "More women are looking for work, and wages are growing, but we can expect the omicron variant to disrupt, or even reverse, this progress in the coming months."
Vogtman credits the uptick in women's labor force participation to schools re-opening and more companies hiring ahead of the new year. Still, the latest report does not reflect the full impact of the omicron variant, she adds.
Several groups saw a sharp drop in unemployment last month, including white women (3.7% to 3.1%), Latinas (5.3% to 4.9%) and Asian women (3.9% to 3.3%). Black women's unemployment spiked last month, however, rising to 6.2% from 4.9%.
This increase can be attributed to both job losses and labor force entries. In December, most job gains went to white women – 538,000 more women were employed in December 2021 than in November, and of those women, 463,000 were white. Black women lost 8,000 jobs.
More than 140,000 Black women joined the labor force in December seeking work but were not hired for open positions. For example, the leisure and hospitality sector created 53,000 jobs in December – and while men gained 57,000 positions, women lost 4,000 jobs, despite making up about 53% of the workforce.
While men gained 700 retail jobs in December, women gained none. Black women are overrepresented in both of these industries and thus "bore the brunt" of these losses, Vogtman adds. At December's rate, the NWLC estimates that it would take 45 months to gain back the nearly 2 million jobs women have lost during the pandemic.
"Our job market devalues the work that women, and particularly women of color, do," Vogtman says. "The service sector positions women of color disproportionately hold are also the ones that have been the most volatile and battered by the pandemic."
"Black women still continue to face discrimination and other barriers to employment, and they tend to be overrepresented in industries that don't offer competitive pay or benefits, like retail or hospitality jobs, so there's unwillingness to accept a low paid job without basic benefits like sick time as the pandemic continues," Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC's director of research, told CNBC Make It in December.
Over one in three women (34.2%) who were unemployed in November had been out of work for six months or longer. While Vogtman fears that this number could spike as variants of the virus spread, hiring managers can mitigate some of the obstacles keeping women from working.
Offering employees higher wages and more paid sick leave would be a great start – but flexible work schedules could be a "game-changer" for keeping women in the workforce, and enticing more to return, Vogtman notes, as it could help them better manage caregiving responsibilities.
"The pandemic has created a vicious cycle of instability and unpredictability in people's lives," she says. "The least women can count on is the number of hours they're working and the money in their paycheck each week."
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter