Louisville, Kentucky, United States – Patricia Iverson feels shut down. The 33-year-old single mother of two had been working hard to pay off bills to move into a bigger apartment. But when the coronavirus pandemic recently forced the company she worked for in Louisville, Kentucky, to drastically reduce her hours, she felt like she had no other option but to leave and find something else.
“It just didn’t make sense to stay for a few days a week,” she said.
Iverson, like so many mothers who were laid off or quit during the pandemic, is now looking for a new job — one that will pay the bills, and allows her to be around her children, who have asthma and seizures.
“I just feel like a loner with just me and my kids,” Iverson explained.
Women, especially mothers and women of colour, have been crushed by the pandemic. Many have been forced into full-time, unpaid roles in childcare, teaching and eldercare, all the while continuing to manage their full-time, paid work. Others, like Iverson, have been forced out of the workforce altogether due to pandemic’s strains.
While the United States jobs market is recovering, albeit more slowly than the broader economy, analysts fear women have lost years of progress in terms of workplace participation. At the same time, they see the pandemic as an opportunity to force a shift in the way employers treat working parents — one that values the benefits women, and especially working mothers bring, and gives them the flexibility to thrive at home and in the workplace.
Shouldering the burden
By the time the pandemic was in full swing last April, some 3.5 million mothers with school-age children had left active work, according to the US Census Bureau. By March this year, nearly 1.5 million fewer mothers were actively working than in February 2020, per the Wall Street Journal.
In April, the share of women over the age of 20 in the US who were either gainfully employed or actively looking for a job fell to 56.2 percent from 56.6 percent the months before.
Dawn Morgan Neary, 42, was one of them. Neary spent the first part of the pandemic on maternity leave. When she returned to her job as a public affairs officer in Maryland in July, she faced a steep learning curve with her team already used to remote work.
While working from home gave her some flexibility to spend time with her daughter and infant son, she says she wasn’t allowed to have her kids in the room during meetings and her boss wasn’t open to her working outside of normal business hours. So when she found her son, who began crawling early, wrapped in a power strip under her desk in November, she knew it was time to quit.
“Since I went to grad school later in life, I made significantly less than my husband, it just made sense that I would be the one to quit my job,” Neary said.
It was a blow many women endured, since mothers, especially Black, Latina and Asian women, have historically shouldered the burden of housework and childcare.
It just made sense that I would be the one to quit my job
“We saw primarily women who were choosing not to go back to work, even if they could work remotely … because they couldn’t really get their regular jobs done when they were so consumed by everything going on around them at home,” said Diane Lim, a Washington, DC- area economist and author of the Economist Mom blog.
“That’s what made this ‘she-cession’ even more a ‘she-cession,’” she said, using the term some economists and media have coined to describe the recession that is primarily affecting women.
As schools reopen and women consider going back to work, Lim says that she believes women are going to have “higher demands on their employment.”
Neary, for example, won’t go back to work until her children are vaccinated, but as she considers her options, she knows she wants to work part-time. That likely means, she says, changing her field of work altogether to accommodate her family’s needs.
“I do have to go back to work eventually,” she said, adding that she’s thinking about nursing. But right now “it’s worth the sacrifice. I’ve learned I don’t want to put my kids back in daycare ever again.”
We’re at a crossroads
Since the pandemic began, about 33 percent of working mothers have considered downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs altogether, according to recent research from consultancy McKinsey.
This could potentially have a ripple effect on women’s progress in closing the gender pay gap, and gains made in being better represented in leadership roles.
Even before the pandemic began, mothers faced a “motherhood penalty” in the labour market. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Wednesday was “Mother’s Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into the year mothers must work to catch up to what fathers made last year alone.”
It just didn’t make sense to stay for a few days a week
Full-time working mothers made $0.75 for every dollar paid to fathers in 2019, which resulted in monthly losses of $1,275 and annual losses of $15,400. The motherhood pay gap is even worse for women of colour. Latina mothers were paid just $0.46, Native American mothers $0.50 and Black mothers $0.52 for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
Still, “we were able to say we made progress,” before the pandemic, said Jess Huang, a partner at McKinsey.
“If mothers step out [of the workforce], if women step out, this could wipe away all of the progress we’ve made in the last six years [since McKinsey has been tracking the issue],” she said. “And that’s a really big deal, because we know that when companies have gender diversity and when companies have leaders at the top that are women … they outperform other companies and it’s good for business.”
It’s a concern that economists and others advocating for women in the workforce share. But they also say the pandemic provides an opportunity to change the unfair realities that mothers in the workplace have experienced for far too long.
“I think we’re at a crossroads,” said Amelia Costigan, the senior director for the Information Center at Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women’s progress in workplaces. “We can use this as a calling to change and rectify these wrongs or people, who are exhausted from a year and a half of COVID, could just say, ‘let’s go back to work, business as usual.’”
There are already some promising signs. The latest COVID-19 relief package signed by President Joe Biden includes more than $39bn to help childcare providers and make childcare more affordable.
Biden has also proposed a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package that includes funding for universal preschool, childcare assistance, a national family and medical leave programme and an expansion of the child tax credit. But the plan faces an uphill battle with Republicans.
At the same time, many say companies also need to do more to support working parents. This includes subsiding childcare, offering more flexible work schedules, redefining what productivity looks like and creating opportunities for mothers and fathers who have left the workforce to return without losing prior progress.
“I think that the whole economy is going to shift toward this realisation that we have to pay more attention to how valuable our human productive capacity is, and how there’s nothing that can grow the economy better than having more people,” said Lim, the economist. “It’s not hard to see … that we need to start with people when we’re building and growing an economy.”
For Iverson, the single mother in Kentucky, local organisations like Black Lives Matter Louisville and the Black Market have offered her some reprieve with grocery and other expenses while she looks for a job.
The last year has been hard, she says, but she’s optimistic. Her advice to other mothers in similar situations: “Keep your head up. God loves y’all. Keep pushing.”