COVID-19’s cost to working mothers

How can women juggle working and parenting during a pandemic?

In early July, Deb Perelman, the food blogger behind Smitten Kitchen and a mom of two kids, penned an op-ed for The New York Times with a provocative title about life during COVID-19: “You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” Perelman described the struggle of caring for children while still trying to keep up with her work, a problem ultimately “solved” when her husband was furloughed and then laid off from his job. But research shows that in the majority of American households, women have shouldered more child care during the pandemic. And for working mothers, that has meant some hard choices.

According to research from Syracuse University, more than 80% of adults in the country who were not working because they were caring for children — who would be in school or daycare if not for COVID-19 — were women. A paper published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization found that mothers of young children reduced their working hours four to five times more than fathers, widening the gender gap in hours from 20% to 50%. 

Just a few months ago, women in the workforce had reached a historic milestone: excluding farm labor and self-employment, the number of women on payrolls in the United States exceeded the number of men. But now, that progress has been put on hold and is in jeopardy, according to Betsey Stevenson, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. 

“There is a rot that’s at the core of women’s employment right now, and that’s child care and elder care, and how women are going to maintain their place in the labor force when we’re really having a crisis of care in the country,” Stevenson said.

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COVID-19 has upended the “patchwork” system of care in the US — from formal programs such as schools, day cares, and summer camps, to informal solutions such as relying on relatives and friends to help out. The virus’ prevalence and way of spreading largely renders those resources unsafe.

Parents and caregivers are now taking care of and entertaining their kids 24/7 — on top of working or searching for a job. These conflicting demands require all parents to make difficult choices, but it is mothers who are most frequently making career sacrifices for their children.

‘Untenable’ arrangements

Although younger men today are much more likely to profess their belief in gender equality, they are not significantly more likely to divide most household tasks equitably, from child care to grocery shopping.

Some might argue that social distancing and isolation would act as an equalizer for couples; if both parents are now home all the time, perhaps the partner who generally does less housework would start to absorb the burdens of running a household and finally do their share. 

However, according to Stevenson, who served as the chief economist at the US Department of Labor under former President Barack Obama, that is not always how it works out. Women often find it untenable to put off child care or housework.

If the guy is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children … and the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.

Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan professor

“If the guy is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children,” she explains. “And the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.” 

Instead, the oversized demands on women lead to an impossible juggling act, which often forces them to cut back on their careers. The fact that women already tended to choose more flexible jobs before the pandemic facilitates this adjustment. And cutting back during the pandemic or leaving the workforce altogether can have negative consequences for gender equality in the future.

‘Child care is just essential’

This spring, employment rates for women fell to around where they were in the 1980s. Although they have been rising as the economy reopens, Stevenson doesn’t expect an immediate rebound and warns that the impact of this setback will be far-reaching.

Taking time off from work now puts future promotions and jobs in jeopardy. “[Fewer hours] will then reduce [women’s] earnings as a share of the household income, which will make them a less important labor market player in their household,” Stevenson explains. 

According to Stevenson, one of the main drivers for greater household equality in the past has been increasingly comparable incomes between men and women. If men make much more money, it makes more sense to prioritize their jobs over their spouses’ when it comes to figuring out child care and housework.

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However, Stevenson suggests that the spotlight placed on childcare by the pandemic has the potential to lead to lasting change. “We’ve revealed that child care is just essential for just a giant share of the workforce, and to just ignore it and keep pretending it’s just a personal problem is a mistake in thinking about the macro economy.” 

This summer marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote in the US. There’s still a long way to go to achieve equality though, and Stevenson urges Americans to use this opportunity to reimagine the post-COVID-19 balance between work and care.

“What does a world look like where we make space for people to do the caregiving they need to do and move seamlessly back into their career?” Stevenson asked. “If you don’t lean in the whole time, you don’t make it to the top. But leaning in is really, really hard if you want to take time to really engage with your children. And that’s true for men and for women, and so we just need a very different conversation about, what does life look like when you make space for both?”

Teresa Lawlor is an intern at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @tmlawlor

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