By KIM BELLARD
If you are a working mom, or married to one, or simply know one, you know that it is tough to balance a job and raising a child even under ideal circumstances. Even if she has a supportive spouse, chances are that it is the mom who ends up providing the most child care, and whose career it impacts the most.
But, of course, these are not ideal circumstances. Prior to the pandemic, women had made great strides in the workforce; more women had payroll jobs than men, for example (although they continued to be paid less for them). Those gains quickly came crashing down once the pandemic hit. It is believed to be the first time that job and incomes losses have hit women harder than men. Some are calling our pandemic-driven economic downturn a “shecession” as a result.
That’s bad enough, but the even bigger danger is that the pandemic could set back women’s careers for a generation.
A recent study by Collins, et. alia confirmed what most might have guessed: in the wake of the pandemic, women are more likely than men to have reduced their work hours to take on additional child care responsibilities due to school/daycare closing — four or five times as much.
The study found that:
Scaling back work is part of a downward spiral that often leads to labor force exits—especially in cases where employers are inflexible with schedules or penalize employees unable to meet work expectations in the face of growing care demands.
We are also concerned that many employers will be looking for ways to save money and it may be at the expense of mothers who have already weakened their labor market attachment.
Even more worrying, lead author Caitlyn Collins, a professor at Washington University, says: “Our findings indicate mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence.”
Five-Thirty-Eight’s Neil Paine and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux analyzed how the pandemic could “force an entire generation out of the workforce.” It starts with availability of child care, as shown in this chart:
Combine that with uncertainty about schools reopening and it makes child care decisions extremely tough. Women with young children were already less likely to be in the workforce than other women, they point out, with caregiving cited as a major reason, and the pandemic is exacerbating the effect. “Leaving the workforce,” they note, “even if it’s just for a year or two, has ripple effects that can follow a woman for the rest of her life, even depressing her earnings in retirement.”
“We’re in danger of erasing the limited gains we’ve made for women over the past few decades, and especially women of color,” Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center told them.
Trying to get the economy open again without figuring out how we’re going to support working moms is a “recipe for a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers,” Joan Williams, University of California Hastings College of Law and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law, told The Wall Street Journal.
The WSJ article cites a Boston Consulting Group survey from this spring that found that both men and women were spending more time on domestic chores than pre-pandemic, but that the gap between women and men had increased from 10 hours per week to 15 hours. “That’s almost two days more of a secondary job,” Matt Krentz, a managing director at BCG told WSJ. “When the trade off comes and it’s not sustainable, the solution often falls to the woman taking the step back.”
The article notes: “People who drop out of the labor force for an extended period not only miss out on pay, they also often fall behind on raises that come from longer tenure and employer contributions to retirement accounts.” When you see “people,” read “women.”
Betsy Stevenson, a University of Michigan professor of economics and public policy, told The New York Times, “We could have an entire generation of women who are hurt. They may spend a significant amount of time out of the work force, or their careers could just peter out in terms of promotions.”
Professor Stevenson summed up what may be the core issue: “This pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in American society that were always there, and one of them is the incomplete transition of women into truly equal roles in the labor market.”
Deb Perelman, writing in The New York Times, puts the dilemma succinctly: “In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.” She goes on to add:
The long-term losses for professional adults will be incalculable, too, and will disproportionately affect mothers. Working mothers all over the country feel that they’re being pushed out of the labor force or into part-time jobs as their responsibilities at home have increased tenfold.
It’s outrageous, Ms. Perelman believes, and she wonders:
“Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?”
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Professor Williams asserted:
We’re in this mess because, even before coronavirus, the legal protections for working mothers consisted of a convoluted matrix of federal, state and local laws…The lack of straightforward legal protections is just one of many ways that public policy fails mothers; the haphazard nature of Families First is merely one symptom of a broader problem.
As The New York Times noted: “In countries that offer more comprehensive support for families — like Germany, France, Canada and Sweden — a significantly larger proportion of women are in the labor force.”
This is, of course, an issue of particular importance to healthcare. According to the Census Bureau, women make up 76% of the healthcare labor force. Child care considerations may drive much of the gender imbalances by specialty for women physicians and other healthcare workers. When COVID-19 hit, essential healthcare workers struggled to find child care that allowed them to keep working. These factors shape our healthcare workforce and our healthcare system.
It’s hard to picture now, but the pandemic will eventually pass. Perhaps we’ll get a vaccine, perhaps it will have to run its course through the population. Most, but not all, jobs will come back; the economy will improve. We’ll settle into a new normal. All that will cost trillions of dollars, hardships for millions, and way, way too many lives.
Most of the damage, though, will be measured in months or years — not generations. Unless we proactively take action, though, these impacts on women’s careers can be generational. The pandemic may galvanize action on, for example, unemployment programs/systems and our healthcare system. We need that same will to action on supporting working moms, such as through better family leave and child care policies.
Do it for your mom.
Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.