When Marie-Pier Tremblay moved from Quebec to Boston in 2012, working a job was not in the cards. There were legal hurdles to working in a new country and her husband’s job supported the family. And so she stayed home with her three kids. 

But in 2022, Tremblay decided it was time to go back. Today, she works doing marketing and social media for Next Chapter Careers, a coaching service that helps parents re-enter the workplace. She has flexible hours and works remotely, a far cry from the 70-hour weeks she once pulled as a lawyer.

“For now this is the perfect situation for us as a family,” Tremblay said. “The more time you spend at home, the harder it is to take that huge step to go back to the workforce.”

It’s a story that’s happening more and more across the labor market. While men still make more than women, the gaps between them have narrowed in terms of both pay and labor force participation. Economists say that’s due to a tight labor market and new hybrid work arrangements.

In February, the gap between women and men’s labor force participation was only 10 percentage points, the lowest it’s ever been, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year the difference between women’s and men’s median wages was also the smallest ever recorded. Women on average throughout the year made 83.7 percent of what men made.

Economists say the growth is good not just for women, who are more likely to be financially independent and to be paid fairly for their work, but for the economy as well. 

“You don’t have to even get into morality reasons when you’re talking about this, it is actually just good for the economy at-large,” said Rose Khattar, director of economic analysis for inclusive economy projects at the Center for American Progress.

Improvements in labor supply tend to lead to economic growth, and increases in women’s wages are additional income that can be spent or invested.

Part of the growth can be attributed to the historically tight labor market the country has seen in the last year. When workers are hard to come by, bosses are forced to be less discriminatory, both in hiring and in pay. The race to raise wages that occurred in the pandemic recovery mostly benefited low-wage workers, who are more likely to be women.

“Wage growth at the lower end of the wage distribution has been pretty tremendous,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “And that might have brought some people into the labor market who might not have been there before.”

Zaina Aljerf worked primarily in restaurants for nearly a decade. But in 2019 she started taking college classes in accounting and business, and later earned an online certificate in bookkeeping from the company QuickBooks. Now, she works full-time as a bookkeeper for Miami University in a temporary position she hopes becomes permanent. She earns more per hour and works from home. 

“I didn’t want to work with restaurants anymore as a single mom. I was working from 8 in the morning to almost 1 in the morning” said Aljerf, who was in graduate school for engineering when she had to leave her home country of Syria. “After I got the degree and I got the bookkeeping, I felt like that was the best choice I made in my life — the best decision I made that made my life easier, happier, and more time for me and my daughter.”

Economists say it’s also impossible to ignore the role of the remote and hybrid work arrangements for white-collar workers in bringing some women into the labor force. Women are often pulled out of work to care for children or aging family members. More flexible environments made balancing those caregiving responsibilities with a job more achievable. The labor force participation rate of women with a child under 5-years-old took an upswing after the pandemic and topped 70 percent in 2023, a new high, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution researchers.

More than two-thirds of the parents who work with Becca Carnahan, the CEO of Next Chapter Careers, to reenter the workforce are women, she estimates. And the new work environment has been a driver for many.

“It’s not just remote work or hybrid work that’s opened up possibilities,” Carnahan said. “It could also be entrepreneurship, launching their own business.” Or contract work on a project-by-project basis.

Women’s participation in the workforce is likely closely tied to their pay and representation at senior levels of employment.

“I think of women’s workforce participation as the lynchpin metric that is causing all the other metrics we look at at a macro level to have a disparity between men and women,” said Christine Winston, executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that works with companies to create specific positions for parents returning to paid work. “The reason that women make 82 cents to the dollar that men make is because they’re not in the workforce consistently. Many more of them drop in and out of the workforce and the reason they do that is caregiving.”

Of course the recent gains haven’t wiped out the gaps between women and men. And women of color in the United States continue to see even starker earnings gaps than white women. Black and Hispanic women on average earn about 63 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of what white men do. Economists say the country will need to implement new social policies if gaps are to come close to closing.

“These are very small changes that are happening right now,” said Gould. “I don’t think you’re going to see big changes without significant changes in policy.”

One of those potential policy updates is expanded family leave. When women can leave the workforce for a time and return to the same job, they are more attached to the labor force. Paid family leave policies in California, New Jersey and New York resulted in a 7 percent decrease in the likelihood of women to leave a job if their spouse experienced a health shock, according to a paper from economists at Stanford University and Wellesley College.

Tremblay, of Boston, was in the lucky position that she wasn’t returning to work because her family needed the money. For her, work had other benefits.

“It’s been amazing to be able to have that structure and to be able to complete interesting tasks that require other parts of my brain that I’ve left out for a long while,” she said. “It’s amazing what it’s done to my self-confidence.”

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