As virtual schooling ramps up in some areas, women are being forced to make the choice between caring for their children or prioritizing their own career. This sets up a huge and largely overlooked threat that hangs over women’s participation in the workforce and their recovery from the job losses in the recession.
“So many schools are opening with distance learning, it certainly is a new set of obligations on parents to help their kids move through the day, and we know that women tend to bear the lion's share of that childcare distance learning work,” said Emily Martin, vice president of education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
“As a mom, and I think a lot of women feel this way, we kind of just take it on,” said Gabriela Bradt, a marine biologist and mother of three kids between the ages of four and 11, who is applying for a paid leave program that will let her work two days a week.
“It’s always nerve-wracking. One of the things I didn’t want to do is give up my job, which I really love,” she said. However, the logistics of the new academic year left her no choice: The school year started off entirely online for her two oldest children, and Bradt and her husband decided to keep their four-year-old at home over health concerns.
“It doesn't matter how flexible your bosses and your colleagues are — at some point things start running into each other,” said the 46-year-old New Hampshire resident, who has been working from home since March under increasingly stressful conditions. “I’ve thought about quitting a lot because it’s just untenable. It’s not sustainable for any of us,” she said. “I’m trying to thread that needle to keep my job and still do a good enough job, but then also take care of myself and my husband and my family. Really, it’s been tough,” she said.
Bradt is far from alone — and the more families that are at the breaking point, the more women have to lose. The September unemployment rate for men was 7.4 percent, while women’s was 7.7 percent. Women’s labor force participation also fell nearly a full percentage point, to 56.8 percent, while men’s fell just two tenths of a percentage point, to 69.9 percent.
“This month is a disaster for working women. 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force; 216,000 men did,” Mike Madowitz, economist at the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress, tweeted on Friday.
Nearly half of parents with school-aged kids said school is taking place entirely online, and only 20 percent said their children will be in the classroom full-time this year, according to an NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll conducted last month. In New York City, which has the largest public school system in the nation, local and state officials were weighing closures in a handful of zip codes grappling with rapidly rising case numbers.
The Federal Reserve’s most recent “Beige Book,” a document detailing current economic conditions, highlighted the dependence on schools as childcare providers as an impediment to economic recovery, with several of the regional Fed banks saying local employers were struggling to fill positions or accommodate parents juggling online school and job demands.
“Women have additional barriers and challenges to reentering the workforce, and childcare is one of them,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“One of the long-term impacts of this pandemic may be a reversal of some of the important gains women have made with respect to increased career opportunity and pay equality,” said Debra Friedman, a labor and employment attorney at the law firm of Cozen O’Connor. “They’re forced to make choices between career and family, often resulting in a career setback.”
Mason said a disproportionate share of this burden is shouldered by women who work in jobs that require them to be physically present — a subset of workers that includes many lower-paid laborers in the retail, hospitality and restaurant sectors. “Those are lower paying jobs with less flexibility and security,” she said, adding that the problem is especially acute for single mothers who have little, if any, outside support for either income or childcare duties.
But even women in white-collar professional jobs have to undertake a delicate, often fraught high-wire act balancing an ever-growing list of obligations.
“There are many instances during the day where you feel like you have to be doing two things at once,” said Martin, who is balancing distance learning with her fourth-grader and her job. “It definitely adds a level of stress to feeling like you're never able to fully meet any of the needs because you always have divided attention, and I say that as someone who's very lucky,” she said, adding that she benefits from having an understanding employer and a spouse who also works from home and can pitch in.
The ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the failure to contain its spread and the depth and duration of the economic disruption, also has stacked the deck against women. “As the pandemic continues to drag on and businesses are slow to open, women will have a harder time reentering the workforce,” Mason said, because there are millions fewer jobs available than there were six months ago.
The other, less quantifiable problem is that many workers have run out of leave time, and employers have run out of resources, goodwill or both when it comes to accommodating a wide-ranging array of workarounds.
“For several months, people pulled together. It was seen as temporary. Now it’s not temporary, and some women don’t have many people to call on,” said Janice Bellace, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s not sustainable in the long term to have children at home, especially when you’re working from home. If you have school-age children, somebody has to be working with them to some extent,” she said.
“For a lot of my female colleagues, we've noticed that at the beginning there was a lot of support,” Bradt said. “Nobody’s saying that anymore, but the threat is still there.”
In the early days of the pandemic, with everyone — working or not — largely at home, working mothers had more resources for helping watch their kids. With more people back in stores, restaurants, factories and schools, those alternatives are dwindling, Mason said.
“Right now, we don't have a national plan or an adequate response,” she said. “If they don't show up for work, the likelihood of losing their job is greater.”
But dropping out of the workforce, or even scaling back from full- to part-time, has ramifications that haunt women for the rest of their careers, and is a factor contributing to their lower level of financial security in retirement. These women also lose the ability to contribute towards employer-sponsored retirement accounts and lose valuable opportunities for networking and skills-building.
“It definitely can have a long-term impact on earnings. The data we have suggests that time out of the workforce for caregiving shows up in wages for many years after the fact,” Martin said. “I also worry that during this time when so many women are disproportionately facing the consequences of our caregiving infrastructure breaking down, that it could lead to reinforcement of gender stereotypes that were already present in the workplace.”
Mason said a policy response that includes income support for mothers, especially lower-income and single mothers, would help alleviate some of the strain, although she adds that the private sector also can — and should — play a role in helping make sure women don’t lose ground professionally. “It's about employer practices and flexibility,” she said.
“This is a time when employers can hopefully take a long-term view of their workforce and of the importance of retaining talent,” Friedman said. “In this pandemic, this requires employers to sometimes offer accommodations they would not have otherwise offered.”