Working during the pandemic meant very different things for Virginia Dressler and her husband, Brandon.
As he, a delivery driver, continued his routes near their home in Newbury, Ohio, she spent her days caring for their 3-year-old twins. Only after her husband came home at 6 p.m. could she turn to her job as a digital projects librarian at Kent State University, finishing her eight-hour shift from home about 2 a.m.
Later, he was furloughed and took over some of the child-care responsibilities. But now, with the economy reopening, the prospect of him being recalled and her getting summoned back to campus fills Virginia with anxiety: Day-care centers are just starting to reopen, with restrictions, so who will take care of their children?
“All of these things are spinning around in my head,” she said. “We’re trying to come up with plan A, plan B and plan C.”
As the pandemic upends work and home life, women have carried an outsize share of the burden. They have been more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day-care centers. For many working mothers, the gradual reopening will compound their problems, forcing them out of the labor force or into part-time jobs while increasing their responsibilities at home.
The impact could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.
“We could have an entire generation of women who are hurt,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. “They may spend a significant amount of time out of the workforce, or their careers could just peter out in terms of promotions.”
Women who drop out of the workforce to take care of children often have trouble getting back in, and the longer they stay out, the harder it is. The economic crisis magnifies the downsides. Wage losses are much more severe and enduring when they occur in recessions.
Women do a disproportionate share of the work at home. Among married couples who work full time, women provide close to 70% of child care during standard working hours, according to recent economic research. That burden was supersized as schools and other activities shut down.
“This pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in American society that were always there,” said Stevenson, a former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, “and one of them is the incomplete transition of women into truly equal roles in the labor market.”
Predates the pandemic
Even before the pandemic, women with children were more likely than men to be worried about their performance reviews at work and their mental well-being and to be sleeping fewer hours.
The inequities that existed before are now “on steroids,” said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University.
Because workplaces tend to reward hours logged, she said, women are at a further disadvantage.
“As work opens up, husbands have an edge,” Goldin said, and if the husband works more, the wife is going to have to work less.
Family responsibilities always have been an issue for women in the workforce. Women often leave jobs to care for a sick child or aging relative.
With day-care centers and summer camps closed, and health concerns lingering about grandparents and others who often make up the informal network of backstop child care, some working women will have no choice but to give up a job.
For single mothers, the pressure is even more intense.
Karin Ann Smith’s paycheck barely covered her expenses when she was working as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Education.
After she was laid off in mid-March, Smith, the mother of a 13-year-old, often was so overwhelmed that she hid in her bathroom with the shower running to catch her breath. She did not receive unemployment insurance until two months after applying, and then only after sending messages to every state employment worker she could find on LinkedIn. Her landlord threatened to evict her until she wrangled rent assistance from the county.
“It’s just too intense — I’ve thought about nothing else,” she said. “There’s no help. There’s no break. When you’re worried about keeping a roof over your heads, when it’s something that fundamental, you can’t worry about anything else, like whether your career is on track or your résumé is good.”
Is help on the way?
Despite the miserable choices facing many working mothers, several economists retain hopes that the increased pressure on families could — over the long term — force structural and cultural changes that could benefit women: a better child-care system, more flexible work arrangements, even a deeper appreciation of the sometimes overwhelming demands of managing a household.
Companies like Salesforce, PepsiCo, Uber and Pinterest recently signed a pledge to offer more flexibility and resources for working parents, and many businesses have softened their stances on telecommuting. Staggered shifts and less business travel also are likely to become more common.
“The effects of this shock” — both good and bad — “are likely to outlast the actual epidemic,” said Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University and a co-author of a recent study on the disproportionately negative effect of the coronavirus outbreak on women.
In the near term, though, there is little relief in sight for working mothers.
Mallory McMaster and her husband have intensely demanding jobs: She runs a communications firm in Cleveland; he works for a startup. Their 2-year-old son, Arlo, has been going to day care since he was 5 weeks old.
Since March, Mallory has started work at 3 a.m. When her son wakes about 8 a.m., she juggles child care and her job until noon, when her husband takes over parenting.
She’s keeping up with her work, but she’s also aware that she’s missing a great opportunity to expand her business.
“Everyone’s scheduling all of these calls and meetings and planning sessions because they want to hit the ground running,” she said. “This would be a great time for businesses like mine to scale up, but I don’t have the time to find new clients, to update my website, because I don’t have child care. It’s hindering me in a lot of ways that are going to last much longer than the shutdown.”