Closing the Gender Gap: Immigrant Women and Equitable Economic Recovery

As more and more people in the United States (U.S.) are vaccinated against COVID-19, the promise of economic recovery is on the horizon. Economic growth continues to soar, and economists expect the growth to continue into the summer. However, as the economy continues to climb back to its pre-COVID state, we must look deeper into the reported levels of economic growthincluding the groups who are enjoying the benefits of economic recovery, and those who risk being excluded. More specifically, even though employment rates have gradually improved for some, immigrant women continue to bear the brunt of the economic fallout from the pandemic. As the economy continues to improve, employers, service providers, and community-based organizations must ensure that everyone reaps the benefits. In fact, employers can work to close the gender gap in immigrant women’s labor force participation. Doing so will allow employees to not only recruit talented immigrant employees but also retain immigrant talent, particularly with policies that account for the unique challenges immigrant women have faced during the pandemic. 

There are many ways that employers can close the immigrant gender gap and promote equitable economic recovery among all workers in the U.S. Below this blog will cover the following four: recognize the problem, implement flexible work schedules, understand the bigger picture, and stay tuned for our full toolkit! 


  1. Recognize the problem.

Understanding the unique challenges immigrant women have faced during pandemic is key to implementing policies that will facilitate economic recovery through the recruitment and retention of immigrant talent. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for all immigrant workers held steady at 2.6 percent, compared to 3.5 percent among workers born in the U.S. By April 2020, however, the unemployment rate among immigrant workers increased by nearly 14 percent, compared to a 10.5 increase among U.S.-born workers. According to the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Senate, roughly 1 in 5 immigrant workers lost their jobs from February to April 2020. The pandemic has also worsened women’s overall levels of employment and economic well-being. According to the National Women’s Law Center,  women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the pandemic-induced recession; the hardest hit include Black, Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women. 38.6% of unemployed women ages 16 and older have been out of work for six months or longer. This includes 40.8% of Black women, 38.3% of Latina women and 44.0% of Asian American and Pacific Islander Women.  

As reported by the Migration Policy Institute, the closure of schools and after-school childcare programs have presented challenges for women, who often shoulder the burden of childcare and domestic work compared to male household members. Virtual schooling has precipitated an absence of childcare, and women have absorbed the brunt of the childcare duties. In fact, women with school-aged children dropped out of the labor force at higher rates than women without school-aged children. 

In addition to higher unemployment rates among immigrant workers and women, immigrant women have lost their jobs at higher rates than U.S.-born women and immigrant men. Despite sharing similar unemployment rates with other groups before COVID-19 took hold of the U.S., immigrant women are among the hardest hit by job losses related to the pandemic. The data is clear: immigrant women faced higher unemployment and lower labor force participation than U.S.-born women and immigrant men. While unemployment rates among these groups dropped below 8 percent in September 2020, immigrant women faced an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent.  Furthermore, immigrant women have experienced the sharpest decrease in labor force participation. From January 2020 to September 2020, immigrant women saw a 7 percent drop in labor force participation, compared to a 4 percent decrease among U.S. born women, a 6 percent decrease among immigrant men, and a 3 percent drop for U.S. born men. One reason for these uneven rates of employment and labor force participation may be due to the industries in which immigrant women tend to be concentrated. These include, among others, healthcare and social assistance, educational services, and hospitality industries, the last of which has seen disproportionate setbacks due to nationwide lockdowns. However, even within fields with higher overall rates of unemployment, immigrant women’s unemployment  

rose at a disproportionate rate compared to U.S.-born workers and immigrant men.  

Moreover, immigrant mothers have absorbed the brunt of household labor and childcare in their households while continuing to predominantly act as primary or co-breadwinners of their families, at 56.4 percent. Women with school-aged children also experienced a sharp decline in labor force participation, and immigrant women are more likely than U.S.-born women to have school-aged children at home. Specifically, 26 percent of immigrant women have school-aged children at home, compared to 17 percent of U.S.-born women. At the same time, even among women with school-aged children, immigrant women have dropped out of the labor force at higher rates than U.S.-born women. Caring for other household members, such as elderly family members, is work that has often fallen to immigrant women. As a result of these unique challenges, a number of immigrant women have been left with no option but to leave the workforce, thereby losing a source of household income. While multiple explanations have presented themselves, one thing is clear: the country’s immigrant workforce, particularly women, face an uneven path to economic recovery. 

The U.S. workforce includes roughly 12.3 immigrant women. How can employers contribute to equitable economic recovery for immigrant women employees, both current and prospective?  


  1. Flexible work scheduling. 

This policy is one approach that can help contribute to immigrant women’s full labor participation by allowing employees of all genders to fulfill their household’s childcare needs without being forced to quit their jobs or switch to part-time employment. 

Flexible work schedule can take many forms. Here are a few options that employers can implement at their workplace: 

  • Modified start/end times   

As a greater proportion of the labor force transitions back to in-person work, allowing employees to arrive an hour later or leave an hour earlier, while maintaining a full workday, can allow employees to fulfil childcare and other household obligations while continuing to perform their duties at work. This also allows both immigrant women and their partners the time to perform childcare responsibilities, thereby balancing the domestic workload in two-person households to allow immigrant women employees to be fully present at work. 

While modified start/end times are already common in management positions, workers in industries such as leisure and hospitality, an industry where unemployment has remained “stubbornly high” among immigrant women, typically have less flexibility in their schedules.[stat with industries most prevalent among immigrant women]. Among all industries, men (36.7%) and white employees of all genders (28.7%) are also more likely to have flexible start and end times than women (28.1%) or people of color (19.7% among Black employees, 18.4% of Latinx employees, and 27.4% among Asian employees), according to a report from The Ohio State University  

How can employers who operate outside of a 9-5 schedule implement modified start/end times to guarantee full coverage? The Ohio State University’s Flexible Work Arrangement Toolkit provides a few different suggestions based on a particular employer’s needs. They include fixed modified schedules—allowing employees to choose a consistent modified work schedule—or variable modified schedules, which give employees the flexibility to modify their start and end times from day to day around a few fixed “core” hours set by the employer. They also suggest the option for employees to take longer scheduled meal breaks than usual if they make up the extra time at the beginning or end of their shift to account for workdays outside of typical 9-5 hours. Finally, employers can implement variable days, consistent schedules of a different number of hours each day, provided that the employee achieves the expected number of hours within the week. Employers can implement modified start and end times in a variety of ways depending on their needs while providing employees the flexibility they need to balance caretaking needs at home.  

  • Schedule-swapping   

If a child or elderly household member falls ill, or another household responsibility arises on short notice, employees can swap portions of their shifts with coworkers. While schedule swapping can share the burden of domestic work across two-person households, this option may also prove critical for single-parent households run by immigrant women. If an emergency arises at an employee’s home, the ability to quickly and easily swap shifts with a colleague promotes immigrant women’s full participation in the workforce. As a result, without the need for immigrant women employees to cut their hours or switch to part-time employment to fulfill household obligations, employers will enjoy the same productivity levels while retaining immigrant talent for years to come. 

  • Condensed work week    

Employers can also allow their employees to work the same number of hours spread among more or fewer days, such as 10 hours split among four days instead of 8 hours split among five days. This option leaves more time for employees to care for other household members or perform other forms of domestic work, thereby promoting work-life balance and, as a result, higher employee retention. Furthermore, a flexible work schedule can also aid in the recruitment of talented immigrant women who would otherwise not apply for a position due to incompatibility with the schedule that childcare and household work would require. A condensed work week could further be paired with modified start/end times if a personal emergency arises during a condensed work week.  

According to Andrew Barnes, the founder of a company that operates on a condensed work week, employers can clarify the organization’s goals while including employees’ input about their expectations for a condensed work week. Once employers have identified specific goals and expectations, Barnes said in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management, they can determine the best way to monitor the effectiveness of the condensed schedule. This may involve measuring metrics such as revenue or customer feedback.   


  1. Understand that flexible work schedules are one piece of the puzzle.

The road to economic recovery will remain uneven without full support for all immigrant employees, including women and people of color. Specific policy approaches such as flexible work schedules must be part of a broader system of targeted strategies for immigrant recruitment and retention, as well as the continued fostering of cultural competence in the workplace to promote immigrant integration. As the economy continues to gradually recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, employers can continue to engage immigrant talent and aid in equitable economic recovery for all. 


  1. Stay tuned for our full toolkit!

If you want to learn more strategies for engaging immigrant talent, including immigrant women, you can read our upcoming employer toolkit. After months of focus groups and interviews with employers, service providers, and immigrants, The Welcoming Center’s Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative has used the takeaways from these conversations to develop a toolkit specifically designed for employers who wish to successfully integrate immigrants into their workforce. 

During the conversations, there was an eagerness to learn how to recruit immigrant talent; however, we discovered the absence of a strategy to also retain and promote that talent. It’s vitally important for employers to first ensure they have a culturally competent workplace, then partner with community-based organizations to recruit and retain immigrant talent. Successful immigrant integration of all skill and education levels requires intentionality and cultivating an inclusive environment. To learn more about the Engaging Immigrant Talent toolkit, join us on Thursday, June 17, 2021, at 1:00p. For details, please click here

To connect with The Welcoming Center, you can follow us on Twitter at @welcomingcenter and continue to check our website for further updates. 

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