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Why Are Women Leaving the Health Care Workforce?

December 30, 2021

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., many women physicians, nurses, and other health care workers have left the workforce. In April 2020 alone, women left or lost more than 1.5 million net jobs in health care. As the economy has rebounded, jobs for women in health care have been slower to recover than those held by men. As of March of this year, 480,000 health care jobs for women remained lost, while the same was true for just 28,000 jobs for men in the sector, according to research published in JAMA Health Forum.

Most of these losses are in lower-paying professions like home health care, where women represent 90% of workers. However, women in higher-paid positions aren't exempt from the trend of women leaving the industry, which began prior to and was compounded by the pandemic. Up to 40% of women physicians leave medicine or opt to practice part-time within six years of completing residency, according to a 2019 University of Michigan study.

A study of women in academic medicine published in The New England Journal of Medicine examined U.S. medical school graduates from 1979 to 2018, citing child care and elder care responsibilities among the reasons women were 23% less likely to be promoted to professor positions and 54% less likely to become department chairs.

"We're definitely seeing that trend of ‘schools closed, there was no day care, my employer wasn't ready to support me with child care options and so I think I'm going to have to leave,'" said Yalda Jabbarpour, MD, a primary care doctor studying family medicine policy. "Medicine is one of those careers where when you leave, it's really hard to go back."

Sources: The 19th, May 17, 2021; Richter KP, Clark L, Wick JA, et al. Women Physicians and Promotion in Academic Medicine. N Engl J Med 2020; 383:2148-2157; Frogner BK and Skillman SM. The Challenge in Tracking Unemployment Among Health Care Workers and Why It Matters. JAMA Health Forum. 2020;1(11):e201358.

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