You might have seen this number floating around: Around 865,000 women left the workforce in September. Women, particularly Black and Latinx women, have been hit harder by COVID-19 job loss than other groups, but there’s a reason why we saw such a big exodus in September — it coincides with the start of the school year. A report by the Dallas Fed noted that women’s workforce participation fell by almost a full percentage point in August and September, but men’s participation actually went up. As we near the end of this hellish year, it’s only becoming clearer that we’re leaving working parents, and especially lower-income working mothers, in the dust.
A new study by The Riveter and Vice Media Group, out today, takes a deep dive into how working parents are faring during the pandemic. Of over 1,000 working parents surveyed, a stunning 33% — the largest share — said they currently had no childcare whatsoever. This number is over twice as high as it was during the pre-pandemic era, when 14% said they had no childcare at all. Before COVID, 45% were using daycare, 19% had a nanny or babysitter, 15% had been stay-at-home, and 15% received childcare through a relative.
It’s no wonder that more women have been forced out of the workforce during COVID than men. They’re still more likely to be seen as primary caretakers for children. The Riveter/VMG study found that while working parents spent about the same time on work now as they did before COVID, working mothers reported spending 8% more of their day on family, while working fathers reported a 5% increase. In addition, while 70% surveyed answered that they took turns with their partner on household and parental duties, 63% of women said that they always took on more of that work than their partners, while only 23% of men said the same.
“From my perspective and definitely my friends’ — women are still taking on the burden of family in the household,” says Jessica Eggert, one of the founders of LegUp, a company that connects parents with the resources they need to find childcare. . “So when COVID hit and all of a sudden we were full-time workers and also caretakers and then educators? Oh man. I broke down.” She saw her son’s second grade schedule and just didn’t see how she would manage it all.
The persistence of a gender wage gap also means that when dual-income different-gender households choose to have one parent stop working for lack of childcare, it’s more often the woman, since she’s more likely to earn less.
“Pre-COVID, we had more women in the workforce than ever, and that number was growing. It wasn't stalling out,” Eggert recalls. The fact that COVID so quickly erased that progress means that, “While the number of women in the workforce was growing, we weren't putting in the infrastructure to support them on an ongoing basis. We didn’t have a system set up.”
Very little relief has been given to working parents or the childcare provider industry. Many facilities have shut down because they couldn’t afford to keep going. There have been talks of the next stimulus bill including relief for the childcare industry — but it’s been months since the last COVID relief bill was passed, with no serious movement right now on another one. Eggert can’t overstate just how crucial this aid is. “[Childcare] is not only very difficult to find, it's very difficult to afford,” she says. “And it's not because childcare providers are making hand over foot in money.”
The Riveter/VMG study makes clear that many working parents, especially mothers, feel that they are failing in some way. 37% of working moms said they felt they were worse parents now than before, while 21% of working dads said the same. They also feel worse about their work performance: 46% of women said they were worse employees, while 31% of men said the same. 62% of women also said that parental guilt was one of their top pain points right now. 43% of men said so.
“I feel guilty for the time I spend away from my daughter,” one survey participant said. “The flexibility to work fewer hours is awesome, but full-time roles need to be restructured to be part-time or the workload and guilt for not being able to do it all persists,” said another. One woman responded, “I work for an Executive Board made up entirely of men, all of whom are married fathers. They are somewhat understanding but it's obvious that their wives are handling the majority of the remote schooling/ parenting responsibilities, allowing them to focus on work. So they don't really understand how hard this is.”
Related to the guilt and shame is how unseen and unheard many parents said they feel. While a permanent framework of childcare benefits is of course necessary, many working parents expressed that among the things they wanted most was for employers and colleagues to understand what it’s like to work and raise a child during COVID. 63% of women and 51% of men said that they wanted their employer to “normalize empathy and patience for working parents.” The only benefit more popular than this are wellness days that give working parents a break once in a while.
“We need more compassion, more empathy,” echoes Eggert. “The first few months, everybody would start meetings with, ‘How are you doing today? Like, really, how are you doing?’ I think we've gotten past that. Now we're just like, okay, this is normal life. Let’s get back to work.”
Empathy doesn’t require moving mountains — often they’re simple gestures. “A lot of what we’re hearing is, parents want leaders to step in and say, ‘Hey, my kid's on the phone too. This is what's going on.’ Being more transparent in what's going on with their life and making [being a working parent] more of a norm,” says Eggert. It would go a long way in alleviating the shame and guilt.
She also suggests employers actually take the time to find out what it is their employees need, keeping in mind that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. “Maybe even tailoring it — instead of just giving the benefit, give certain amounts of money and say, ‘You figure out what you're going to use this on.’”
To be sure, this empathy must come with things like reduced workloads, flexible work hours, extra PTO, generous childcare subsidies, and even a restructuring of how performance and productivity is measured. “Understanding the changes in lifestyle are one thing, but the structures around expectations in the workplace have not changed since the pandemic began. Bonuses and other metrics are still built around the pre-pandemic lifestyle,” one working father pointed out.
“I think that there's a feeling that you aren't as committed to the job because you have children, and that's a lie,” says Eggert. “I think we have to prioritize. And our children always come first. But we're still as committed to our jobs, to our careers as ever.”
One of the biggest problems is simply that childcare, especially full-time care, is extremely expensive. The solution, beyond just individual companies stepping up, is putting pressure on our government to give a lot more aid. “We finally got $3 billion from the government in the first stimulus bill, and that was supposed to support our childcare programs. There’s almost 300,000 licensed childcare programs across the U.S. — that didn’t put a dent,” says Eggert. “We need at least $50 billion to stand up the childcare industry.” Republicans and Democrats have been in a deadlock on stimulus relief negotiations for months now; while the bills proposed by House Democrats include funding for childcare, Republicans have been countering with a far smaller package under $2 trillion that does not contain aid for the childcare industry.
It’s also important to note that the burden is even heavier for working mothers of color, especially for those who can’t work from home or don’t have an empathetic employer. Of the 865,000-plus women who dropped out of the workforce in September, 324,000 were Latinx. The Dallas Fed analysis found that Black working mothers experienced the biggest drop in labor participation, decreasing by 6.4%. Black women are also more likely to be breadwinners for their households than any other group of women. It’s obvious we need a sea change in the accessibility and affordability of childcare, on a national scale. We may say that we care about gender and racial equality in the workplace, but until we build a sturdy childcare infrastructure, we won’t truly mean it.