How the pandemic could drive a generation of mothers out of the workforce

How the pandemic could drive a generation of mothers out of the workforce

Alicia Wertz has hardly seen her husband in the past few months. Since schools closed in their northern Alabama city in March, they have focused on one goal: to make sure someone is watching their three children. Wertz first tried to work from home. But she didn't do anything, so they tried to split the hours: Wertz & # 39; husband watches the children in the morning, then a sitter comes to relieve him in the afternoon until Wertz takes over when she returns from work.

"When we are not working, we are alone with the children. It almost feels like you are a single parent. All you do is go to work and take care of the children," said Wertz.

In her mind, Wertz counts down the days until the schools reopen. But there's a nagging worry in the back of my mind – what if they don't open at all? "The thought that (my children) won't return in the fall is devastating," said Wertz when we spoke in early July. "The question arises: If one of us has to stay at home with the children, whose job is more important? I think we talked about this before, but COVID-19 made it much worse. "

Wertz is not the only working mother for whom the thought of the autumn calendar triggers both relief and fear. And what's next could have a disproportionate – and lasting – impact on the careers of countless women across the country. Studies have shown that women already carry most of the burden of caring for and raising their children at home. Now it is also more likely than men that they have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. And the collapse of childcare and public education infrastructure that so many parents rely on will only exacerbate these problems and even completely drive some women out of work.

"We are at risk of wiping out the limited gains we have made for women, especially skin-tinted women, over the past few decades," said Melissa Boteach, vice president of income security and childcare / early learning at the National Women's Law Center.

The essence of the problem: childcare is no longer available as it was before the pandemic. Data made available to FiveThirtyEight by the job search website Indeed, childcare services reinstatement (a useful indicator of reopening) has been shown to be much slower than in other areas of the economy:

Combine this with the news that many schools will remain closed in the fall and the crisis is easy to spot. If surveys indicate this, the vast majority of the consequences will be weathered by mothers who did most of the housework before the pandemic started.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center asked parents how they split family responsibilities when both work full-time. Some tasks were fairly evenly distributed: 20 percent of the respondents stated that the mother disciplined the children more, 17 percent stated that the father was more disciplined, and 61 percent stated that the responsibility was shared equally. However, for each assignment, more respondents indicated that the mother bore a greater portion of the burden than those who said the father did – including the areas where child schedules are administered, children are looked after when ill, and chores done.

Mothers usually shoulder more of the burden at home

Share of parents in households with two full-time parents who say, according to a Pew survey, that each parent does more work in a specific category

Percentage of parents who say …
category Mother does more Father does more Work divided equally
Manage schedules / activities for children 54% 6% 39%
Take care of sick children 47 6 47
Do housework, etc. 31 9 59
Play / do activities with children 22 13 64
Discipline children 20 17th 61

Based on a 2015 Pew Research survey with a sample size of 531 respondents. The sample included only male / female couples.

Source: Pew Research Center

Similarly, in a 2019 poll, Pew found that 80 percent of the women who lived with a partner who had children did the primary grocery shopping and food preparation tasks for their families. And according to the American Time Use Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which records the average time per day for different activity categories, married mothers with full-time employment spent 56 percent more time on childcare and housework than corresponding fathers. In contrast, the fathers spent more time on work-related tasks, travel and leisure activities.

All of that extra time that mothers spend really adds up

According to the American Time Use Survey, married parents of children under the age of 18, who both worked full-time, did different activities every day

hours per day
activity Mothers Fathers Diff.
Household activities 1.87 1.23 +0.64
Personal care for children 0.59 0.28 0.31
Childcare – others 0.36 0.22 0.14
Travel related to children 0.25 0.13 0.12
Education related activities 0.10 0.06 0.04
Reading with children 0.05 0.03 0.02
Playing / hobbies with children 0.27 0.29 -0.02
total 3.49 2.24 1.25

The survey data cover the combined years 2015 to 2019 and include both same-sex and same-sex couples.


Even under normal circumstances, it was difficult for mothers of young children to weigh the work against the heavy burden of childcare. The BLS found that the employment rate for women with children under the age of 6 was 66.4 percent in 2019, which was significantly lower than the rate for women with children aged 6 and over (76.8 percent). According to a 2014 US Census Bureau survey, 61 percent of women who were unemployed and had young children gave “care” as a reason why they were not employed. 46 percent of women who were unemployed and had older children said the same thing. To put this in perspective: Only 10 percent of all those surveyed who were unemployed gave care as the reason.

A similar burden can be seen in the decisions of working mothers to take unpaid leave or even part-time jobs instead of full-time jobs. According to the same 2014 census survey, 30 percent of women who worked part-time with young children – and 19 percent of women with older children – said that nursing was one reason why they worked part-time. (The proportion of part-time employees is only 7 percent.)

Now that schools are closed and day care is struggling to stay open, even more women can conclude that the best – or perhaps the only – choice for their family and their own health is to shorten their working hours or even take a “break” from their careers.

"Sometimes I get to a point where I think," I'm so tired, I have to work part-time for everything to work, "said Lee Dunham, a lawyer who lives in Delaware. Since the pandemic started, Dunham has been mostly for daytime her 10-month-old daughter in charge – which means that her work day doesn't start until 8:00 p.m. and usually at 2:00 a.m. "I just don't get enough sleep because I watch the baby 40 hours a week and my job 40 hours per week. It is really rough. "

Dunham is lucky to have an understanding employer who told her earlier this year that they would loosen up all of their employees because of the pandemic. But at the time, she added, everyone was assuming that the daycare would be operational until midsummer. "I may have to call back my hours, which of course means I'll be paid less."

This kind of calculation already depresses women's wages and makes it difficult for their careers to progress. According to the National Women's Rights Center, mothers typically only get 71 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. In fact, many recent studies on the gender pay gap have shown that much of it is simply due to the restrictions on working mothers. For example, an analysis of data from Denmark in 2018, which is a counterpoint to the United States in terms of the social security network and yet has a very large and persistent gender pay gap, showed that women's income after the birth of their first child drops significantly. while men's income is not affected at all. And, crucially, several studies in the US and other countries have shown that wage development for women who don't have children is similar to that of men regardless of whether they have children (although some research has actually shown that becoming a father can contribute to men's professional success).

This inequality is particularly strong in women with skin color. Black mothers receive only 54 cents for every dollar paid to a white father, according to the NWLC. For Latina mothers it is 46 cents. Colored, low-income women are also among the most likely to have lost their jobs in the current recession. And it is disproportionately likely that these are childcare workers who are asked to return to work at low wages, sometimes under unsafe working conditions. "We are in a vicious circle in which we need childcare as one of the tools to get women equal pay, and yet unequal pay is one of the main reasons why women are urged to stay at home," said Boteach.

Leaving the workforce, even if it only takes a year or two, has ripple effects that can follow a woman for the rest of her life and even depress her retired income. Finding a new job after a few years' break can be very difficult for mothers who are classified as less serious in their careers because they have taken some time off to be with their children. A 2007 study found that mothers were perceived as less competent than fathers and that their recommended salaries were also lower.

During this pandemic, you can already see the disproportionate effects taking shape. The unemployment rate for women was 16.2 percent higher in April than in any month since at least 1948, before falling to 11.7 percent in June – one percentage point higher than the rate for men (10.6 percent). Even more striking is that women's labor force participation declined to 54.7 percent in April, before rising to 56.1 percent last month. Both numbers are reminiscent of the quotas for women from the 1980s – back when the idea of ​​women in the workforce was still gaining momentum.

Wertz has no plans to leave her job – at least for the time being. "I worked incredibly hard to get where I am now," she said. “I paid my way through school essentially without family support. For years I worked too hard not to have enough money. “She is already worried that she will be perceived differently at work because she is a mother. "Even if it were only a year, I know what that gap in my resume would look like," she said. "If I had to take this step back, I just don't know if I would recover from it."