We’ve failed working mothers (again). This is how we build a better world for them.
Summary List Placement
The first thing Justina Sade wants you to know is that she didn’t leave the workforce.
In February, a little over a year into her role at a global digital-marketing agency, the 35-year-old account manager in San Francisco said her son got sick just as COVID-19 hit the public. By early March, and without an official diagnosis, she was working from home while caring for her son.
Her 6-year-old has asthma and was having trouble breathing. At work, her employer wanted a doctor’s note to confirm why she wasn’t in the office after three days. A disciplinary meeting was held in mid-March to address her absence, the same week school and office closures — including her own — swept the nation. By November, under the mounting pressure of balancing childcare and an increasing workload, she was let go.
The official reason, she said, was not logging enough client hours. But Sade is firm about what happened: She didn’t leave — she was forced out, she told Insider.
The pandemic has caused a mass exodus of mothers from the US workforce, with The New York Times reporting in October that the number could have reached over 1.5 million in September. More than an unfortunate effect of a weakened economy and health crisis, this expulsion brings to light what working mothers have known for decades: The workforce, and the systems that support it, isn’t always a welcoming place for them.
While the pandemic continues to expose the many hurdles working mothers have to overcome every day — employers that drive parents to make impossible choices between family and work, a lack of federal policies in place to protect mothers and caregivers, and the disproportionate burden of childcare and household labor — we’re left with a gap that could have devastating effects for decades to come.
What happens if we don’t change course
A 2018 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said that when women spent just a single year out of the workforce, their annual earnings could decrease by 39% compared with women who had no absence. Meanwhile, those who lose their jobs during a recession often experience earnings losses that long outlast the recession, according to an Econofact analysis.
“We’re talking about losing a generation’s worth of gains for women in the workforce,” Melissa Boteach, the vice president for income security and childcare and early learning at National Women’s Law Center, told Insider. “This is a story that’s really hitting women as caregivers, both paid and unpaid, in real time but then sort of providing a scarring throughout the rest of their life.”
Kasey Buckles, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, told Insider to expect to see other longer-term effects in the next several years, adding that women often struggle to find “on-ramps” back into their careers after stepping out of the workforce. Furthermore, she said, “a slow recovery from the pandemic could mean that even when women are ready to return to the workforce, that choice may not be available to them.”
A widening gender wage gap is another concerning casualty of the shifting workforce.
“We project it’s going to take more than 10 years for the gender wage gap to close to what it was before the pandemic,” the economist Jane Olmstead-Rumsey told NPR in August.
But it’s not the only gap in question. In a November report, the Gusto economist Luke Pardue examined the widening “termination gap,” which showed that women were 24% more likely to be furloughed than men and 22% more likely to be terminated. An additional “recovery gap” between male- and female-owned businesses stands to widen as well.
For employers, the absence of women has a tremendous effect. Ample research has shown that businesses with women in high-level positions experience “company profits and share performance” close to 50% higher than those without, according to a 2020 McKinsey study. Additionally, the study on diversity and inclusion found that women in these positions had a positive influence on company culture, as they were often advocates for family-friendly policies and more willing to mentor their younger and more inexperienced counterparts.
“When you see someone who looks like me, they have to fight to make it,” said Gina McCullars, a 34-year-old lead marketing strategist and mother in New Jersey whose contract with a global entertainment company was abruptly terminated in May. She recalled being one of the few women of color at her former employer and emphasized that Black women and mothers, in particular, needed a “champion and an advocate” at work.
Lastly, there are the implications for the economy at large. With women making up about half of the US workforce, a significant loss of women leads to a significant loss of wages.
“Women-owned businesses have been the driving force of employment and revenue growth over the past five years,” Pardue told Insider. “We risk significant harm to working mothers, their families, and the American economy at large unless policies are changed soon.”
Pardue said the growth of women in the US workforce over the past 50 years had increased the gross domestic product by 11%, adding that research also showed that as women’s share of the workforce increased by 10%, wages rose for all workers by nearly 10%. To put it simply, “women moved the economy forward and upward,” he said.
For mothers to return and remain in the workforce post-pandemic, policymakers, employers, and partners must work together to create an inclusive and supportive environment.
America’s childcare crisis
Kat Dumenigo, 43, a teacher for Pre-K Counts, a free prekindergarten program in Philadelphia, told Insider her decision to take family leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was based solely on a lack of childcare and support for her son with learning needs. After she experienced a turbulent spring, when her job called for in-person instruction in September while Philadelphia public schools went fully remote, she had to make a decision.
“I knew pretty quickly that my child came first in this,” she said. “The main factor was my son and being able to support him.”
For mothers who are able to do their jobs from home, childcare and virtual schooling poses a different kind of challenge. The pressure that comes along with what Jessica Calarco, a sociologist, calls “intensive work” and “intensive parenting” — where mothers are expected to balance full-time workloads with the responsibility of being full-time childcare providers — is leaving mothers frustrated and stressed.
Brittany Bronson, a 30-year-old diversity and inclusion strategist and project manager who’d been at her job less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, opted to take advantage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave as well. Her 3-year-old twins had been out of day care since March, and by June, when her 8-year-old son joined them, the weight became too much.
Even with a flexible work-from-home schedule, “it just got to a place where I started to feel like I was abandoning my family,” she told Insider, adding: “I wasn’t meeting deadlines. I was barely keeping up.”
According to a 2019 Child Care Aware of America analysis, the recommended percentage of income dedicated to childcare should be 7%, as set by the US Department of Health and Human Services — but on average, parents are paying double or triple that amount. Boteach of National Women’s Law Center said low-income women were paying one-third of their income on childcare.
Dumenigo, who returned to work in November, said she had pieced together a combination of an in-home sitter, the local YMCA, and a family friend for childcare. She said that while it was manageable, she did have concerns about the long- and short-term financial implications.
“That little extra I used to be able to put away is going to childcare,” she said.
The truth is the industry as a whole is, and has been, collapsing.
“We’re at risk of losing 4.5 million childcare slots,” Boteach said.
And that’s not all.
“Childcare workers get paid poverty-level wages for the work that keeps us going,” she added. “They are the workforce behind the workforce.”
So how do we fix it? “Part of the disconnect here is that we’ve always seen caring for children as this private responsibility, when in reality childcare is a public good,” Boteach said. “It is basic infrastructure like roads, bridges, and K-12 education.”
This means establishing substantial public investments and effective policies that make high-quality affordable childcare available to all children and families.
Read more: I’m a 3-time CMO and 5-time ironman triathlete, but having a child is the hardest thing I’ve ever done
How employers are failing moms
In the Stanford sociology professor Shelley J. Correll’s research on minimizing the motherhood penalty, she examines the history of the disadvantages mothers face in the workplace, highlighting issues from wage penalties to “status-based discrimination,” where employers perceive mothers as less committed to their jobs.
Inflexible schedules and unrealistic expectations from employers also play a huge role. McKinsey & Co. said in its Women in the Workplace 2020 report that less than one-third of companies had adjusted their performance-review criteria to account for challenges created by the pandemic.
Sade, who said she was managing upward of 30 accounts before the pandemic, added that “when COVID hit, I thought it would slow down, but it did not let up. It got worse.”
Black women, in particular, face many inequalities and lack of support at work. For Bronson, even disclosing her family structure was a measured decision.
“As Black mothers, we have a very different burden sometimes because we have so many social stigmas against us,” she said — stigmas that would have made sharing she had three young children particularly uncomfortable because of false generalizations about Black mothers, their family structures, and even marital status.
Bronson cited transparency with policies along with affirming work-life balance and modeling that behavior as key for inclusion. “If you have leadership that never takes a day off, that trickles down to how employees view their work-life balance and what’s acceptable culturewise in the organization,” she said.
Employers should also be having conversations with employees about their needs. “Using your discretion and position of power in a way that validates employees’ experiences is really important,” Bronson said.
Jill Koziol, the CEO and cofounder of Motherly, a lifestyle brand for modern motherhood, said adjusting goals, making space in the work calendar for moms to recover from hardships of the pandemic, and supporting leave were key to the success of her fully remote team.
“Early in the pandemic, we adjusted goals and KPIs across the organization, a recognition that we were all working and doing business under new constraints,” she told Insider. “We also made space in schedules, becoming even more flexible about when the work got done.”
Lack of support at home
Mothers across households disproportionately carry the burden of childcare and household labor. Even when fathers are present, mothers are more likely to be primarily responsible for managing childcare tasks throughout the workweek, such as preparing meals, supervising homework, and monitoring playtime, according to a recent survey from Catalyst, a nonprofit working to build better workplaces for women.
McCullars estimated about a “70% to 30%” split of childcare between her and her spouse, while single or co-parenting mothers like Dumenigo and Sade said the work of childcare fell solely on them. This imbalance is fueled by “cultural elements, social stigmas, societal pressures, and shame that affects how women feel as mothers,” Boteach said.
But that’s not the only cause.
“If you have a couple, and they’re trying to decide who is going to take time out of the labor force to care for children, or in a crisis, whose income is more important?” she said, referring to the gender pay gap. “The dynamics of all the structural inequities and discrimination baked into our economy comes seeping into the home.”
So what can we do as a society? First, we need to acknowledge that caregiving is the backbone of our society, instead of a disposable commodity that women take the primary and private burden of. Until we do, “women, and particularly women of color, continue to get the short end of the stick,” Boteach said.
Sarah Peck, the founder and CEO of Startup Parent, a company that helps women and parents navigate the challenges of working while raising young children, said that in her home there was no “default parent.” “Everything is parsed out and negotiated: who does drop-off, pickup, weekend mornings, bath time, and more,” she said.
The need for federal policies
The lack of federal oversight and regulation when it comes to universal family and medical leave has also compromised working mothers. As the Congressional Research Service reported in its 2019 analysis of paid leave, of the 34 “advanced-economy” countries part of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the US is the only OECD member that doesn’t offer paid leave for mothers. Instead, employers decide what paid leave looks like, leaving just 16% of workers with access, which is disproportionately available to high earners. In other words, the people who need paid family leave the most are the least likely to receive it.
“What’s most mind-boggling about the state of US parental leave — or lack thereof — is the data showing parental leave as a win-win-win for baby health, mother health, family health, and employers,” Missy Narula, the founder of Exhale Parent, a legal and financial resource for new families, told Insider.
What the Families First Coronavirus Response Act has shown, in an experiential way, is the benefits of having federally mandated leave for mothers and caregivers available. For mothers like Bronson, the 12 weeks of paid leave was tremendously helpful, even at two-thirds of her pay.
While the Family and Medical Leave Act, the current federal family-leave policy in place that guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of leave, falls “painfully short because it is unpaid,” there are options on the table that could bridge the gap, Narula said. The FAMILY Act, introduced in 2019, is a proposal that would provide caregivers partial income for up to 12 weeks of leave and be available to all workers — including hourly, part time, and self-employed — regardless of company size. Spearheaded by Paid Leave for All, it builds on the success of insurance programs for paid family and medical leave in place in several states and is backed by business leaders and family advocates across the country.
A bright spot
Against all odds, mothers have remained resilient. As they continue to be pushed from the workplace, many have turned to creating businesses and jobs on their own.
McCullars, the marketing strategist who found herself out of work in May, launched her own consulting firm in June, Premier Noire, using her expertise to help small businesses with digital marketing. During her leave, Bronson was able to manage the difference in her salary with her career consultancy and résumé-writing firm, Rebrand Career Consulting, that she’d been running since 2019.
Read more: I’m a mom influencer who earns up to $12,000 a month through paid sponsorships. Here’s how I grew my income and following while caring for my son.
Mothers are also learning to be their own advocates. Sade said she was in no rush to return to the same work environment that pushed her out in the middle of a global crisis. As she “selectively searches” for a new job, she said, she’s “only looking for positions that are in alignment” with how she wants to work and live.
Boteach also shared the hopeful possibility that could come from a year without childcare. “People may be finally recognizing the value of the sector, the value of these caregivers who are a backbone of the community and of our economy,” she said. She said she felt this awakening may be used as a “force for seeking constructive solutions and building the systems that we need and deserve.”
SEE ALSO: ‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are the emptiest words in corporate America. Here’s what we really need to dismantle systemic racism in the office.
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