Women made up more than half of the job gains in May, and unemployment rates for women dropped across racial categories last month as the economy added more than half a million jobs, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall, 559,000 net jobs were added in May, a sign of a modest rebound after a disappointing April that came in far below economists’ projections. Of those, 56 percent, or 314,000, went to women, according to BLS’ survey of employers. The bureau uses two surveys each month to paint a picture of the U.S. economy: one that surveys establishments and one that surveys households. 

In the household survey, 204,000 women reported rejoining the labor force, reversing the trend in April when 165,000 women left. In May, 151,000 men exited the workforce, meaning they were unemployed and had stopped looking for work altogether. 

The reason for that, across genders, is still in part because of the pandemic. Some 2.5 million people said they were prevented from looking for work last month because of the pandemic. 

Still, unemployment rates continued to drop in May, though they are still not at pre-pandemic levels. 

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For women overall, the unemployment rate in May was 5.6 percent. The rate continues to be highest for Black women at 8.2 percent and Latinas at 7.4 percent and lowest for White women at 4.8 percent.

The improved numbers signal that jobs are returning in the fields that women dominate. In April 2020 alone, half of all of the jobs in the hospitality industry were lost — a loss that helped trigger the first women’s recession in American history because of the sheer volume of women who held those positions. 

Hospitality jobs have been steadily returning this year. In May 292,000 hospitality jobs were added, on top of 328,000 in April and 227,000 in March.

That means that more than half of all of the job gains in May were because of the jobs added in hospitality. 

The public sector — government and education jobs largely held by women and predominantly women of color — also rebounded last month. Employment rose in local government education (53,000), state government education (50,000) and private education (41,000) as in-person learning resumed. About 63 percent of the job gains in the public sector in May went to women. 

The improvements, particularly in the unemployment rate, are “a positive sign for the recovery and something that mostly happened for the right reasons: people getting jobs versus people leaving the labor force,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. 

In the past month, employers have claimed a labor shortage has made it difficult for them to attract workers to open positions, while workers have claimed that employers are not willing to pay more for jobs. Last month, thousands of workers, led by women, held strikes across the nation calling for higher wages. 

According to BLS, employers are listening: For the past two months, hourly wages for private employees have risen 21 cents in April and 15 cents in May, a significant increase for an economy with 144 million workers.

“The data for the last two months suggest that the rising demand for labor associated with the recovery from the pandemic may have put upward pressure on wages,” BLS said.

But the economy is still far from where it was at the start of the pandemic. 

About 1.8 million women and 1.7 million men are still out of the labor force compared to February 2020. 

That’s why Michael Madowitz, an economist with the Center for American Progress who tracks the numbers for women, cautions that people should not to look too closely at any one month. 

“If you zoom out [to the start of the pandemic] and follow that trend, we are still so many millions of jobs short of where we were expecting to be,” Madowitz said. “It can both be better and still need lots of improvement.”

Gould from EPI estimated that it will take until the end of 2022 for the economy to return to where it was before the pandemic. But returning there shouldn’t be the gold standard, especially when considering that that economy looked very different for people of color. 

Before the start of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for Black workers overall was 5.4 percent. Last month it was 9 percent. 

Already, White workers have a lower unemployment rate in May 2021 — 5.1 percent — than Black workers had in a pre-pandemic world. 

And so while month-to-month improvements in the labor market may signal recovery, the question continues to be: Recovery for whom?

“We want to get back to the pre-pandemic labor market,” Gould said, “and yet there were a lot of disparities in that labor market.”