Women Independents: From Recession to Recovery

MBO has released a new report on women in the independent workforce, its latest Research Brief in its State of Independence in America series. This report, the only of its kind, highlights the growth, motivations, and desires of this increasingly in-demand segment of the American workforce. Specifically, this report looks at the disproportionate impact of women in the independent workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the 2020 MBO Partners State of Independence study, the number of full-time female independents fell by 1.4 million, while the number of full-time male independents only declined by 300,000. In other words, 82% of the decline in full-time independent workers came from women. These job losses also resulted in greater economic impacts on women independents, with 38% of women saying the pandemic set them back financially versus only 29% for men.

Three are observed, including some positive data about the future for female independents.

1. The recession disproportionately impacted sectors with heavy female representation; women also bore the brunt of at-home caregiving. 

The recession hit two sectors overrepresented by female workers:  services and businesses serving consumers.  For example, 59% of full-time female independents report serving consumers and 70% report providing services. Only 42% of full-time male independents serve consumers, with 58% providing services. Another key reason for the decline in female independents & traditional workers alike lies in the burden of caregiving responsibilities – which fall disproportionately on women.  Shuttered schools, a lack of childcare, caring for sick relatives and other caregiving requirements resulted in women leaving the workforce.

2. Women are more likely to look for independent work, and do so both for flexibility and to fulfill a passion 

While the pandemic's pressures on working women have been intense, it's also led to more women looking to become independent workers.  Women, however, have distinct motivations vs. their male counterparts, which has been consistent throughout the ten years we have studied the independent workforce.

The pandemic didn’t change this. In 2020 close to 3 out of 4 women (72%) reported that flexibility was an important motivator for becoming an independent worker. Just over half of the men (54%) reported that flexibility was key. Women independents also said controlling their schedule was an important reason for becoming independent (67 percent versus 49 percent for men), and 78% of women said doing something they like is more important than making the most money, compared with 64% for men. Men were more likely than women to note that they like being their own boss (69 percent vs. 55 percent) and to say they don’t like answering to a boss (65 percent vs. 57 percent).

Focusing on flexibility, control, and doing work they like works for most women independents. Almost 9 out of 10 (89 percent) report being satisfied or highly satisfied with independent work (79 percent for men), 89 percent say they are happier as independents (79 percent for men) and 77% say they’re healthier (67 percent for men).

3. Women remain upbeat about the post-pandemic future and their careers; interest in independence is at an all-time high

As of Fall 2020, the number of women surveyed who said they would either definitely or probably become an independent worker or start a small business jumped from 10.1 million in 2019 to 17.9 million in 2020, an increase of 77%. This is by far the largest increase in the 10+ years of the MBO State of Independence research series.

Women independents are also more upbeat about the future than men, with 77 percent of women saying they are optimistic about their future career compared to 54 percent for men.

Read on for our deep dive into the world of women independents, and stay tuned for more Research Briefs from our State of Independence in America series throughout the remainder of the year.

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