Working Moms at Risk of Being Left Behind in Economic Recovery


Jun 11, 2020

Mother working at home while caring for a toddler, photo by kate_sept2004/Getty Images

Photo by kate_sept2004/Getty Images

It's a tenuous time to be a working mother.

At the start of 2020, even before the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life, being a working parent was a challenge. Parents are less happy than non-parents. But in the United States, where there is less access to subsidized childcare, parental leave and paid time off, the happiness penalty to parenthood is even larger. And unlike fathers, mothers are less likely than their childless counterparts to be hired, and receive lower salary offers (PDF) when they are offered a job, adding a wage penalty to the happiness penalty.

On top of this, time-use surveys have consistently found that, unlike many working fathers, the majority of working mothers have a second shift at home, in which they carry out a greater share of household tasks.

Yet, working mothers are often critical economic contributors to their household. In 2017, the Department of Labor estimated that mothers earned at least half of household income in 40 percent of households with children.

Enter the pandemic. Schools are closed for in-person instruction through the end of the year in most states, and many childcare facilities closed by state order or local preference. For working mothers, this means adding a third shift to the day—full-time childcare and homeschooling.

While there is early anecdotal evidence that mothers are pulling back hours in order to provide care while their partners continue working full-time, that is not a feasible or desirable option for everyone.

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While there is early anecdotal evidence that mothers are pulling back hours in order to provide care while their partners continue working full-time, that is not a feasible or desirable option for everyone. For example, the two occupations with the largest number of mothers in the workforce—elementary and middle school teachers and registered nurses—are extremely likely to carry the expectation that they continue working. And for single mothers, there is no other worker whose income can support the family. We do not have data yet on how working mothers have managed this incredible amount of responsibility—if they left their jobs, dropped to part time, hired in-home help, arranged for a family member to move in, changed the household division of labor, or any combination of these possibilities.

But we do have early data on one consequence: mental health. There is preliminary evidence that the pandemic's increased mental burden has not been borne equally. While women overall report negative mental health impacts from the pandemic at a higher rate than do men, this gap is particularly profound for parents of children under the age of 18, with 57 percent of mothers, compared to 32 percent of fathers, reporting negative impacts. And among parents trying to work, a recent survey found a 20 percentage point difference in the likelihood of working mothers taking a primary role in home education and caregiving, compared to working fathers.

The consequences of the squeeze on working mothers brought on by the pandemic may only cascade from here. As businesses reopen, the continued closure of schools, summer camps, and childcare centers will likely require at least one parent to continue to work from home or forgo working. Telecommuting while other colleagues work in person may limit opportunities for networking and informal communication. Missing out on the development of additional social capital may disproportionately harm women's careers, as women tend to be part of less powerful networks (PDF).

And these are just the short-term considerations. The pandemic has increased the opportunity cost of working, in that the more affordable childcare options are off the table for most. We know from prior research that the cost and availability of childcare strongly relate to women's labor force participation. The extant stereotype that mothers are less committed to their jobs leads to discrepancies in pay and promotion. Parents who are currently working without childcare are unlikely to be able to engage at their usual level. To the extent that the pandemic may intensify the perception of parenting being at odds with work, there may be devastating career consequences for both today's and tomorrow's working mothers.

As working mothers reconfigure the logistics of grocery shopping, supply management and children's education diversions during a pandemic—some of them telecommuting, some of them working essential jobs—they also must navigate the societal biases that assume that they may be putting in less productive hours than their working father counterparts. Given that many employers are looking to cut back on staff, there is a real danger that working mothers will come second in the economic recovery.

Melanie A. Zaber and Kathryn A. Edwards are associate economists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on June 11, 2020. Outside View © 2020 United Press International.