The multiple fallouts from COVID-19 will be revealed for years. But one reality is clear now: Working mothers were particularly punished by the coronavirus pandemic. Many women lost service sector and personal care jobs, which were the first to disappear. Others were called home to manage children being schooled virtually or elderly parents no longer safe in their living situations. Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has been watching the trend closer than most as a researcher and, now, new father. We reached out to Grunewald to get his take on the times we're in, and to predict what the workplace might look like for mothers and fathers going forward.
Q: COVID hit and it's as if we reverted back to the 1950s. Why is it that we tend to still fall into these gender patterns in the United States, with women taking up the lion's share of child care and home responsibilities?
A: Labor force participation among women has increased steadily since the 1950s, but the expectation that women maintain the lead role in taking care of children and housework hasn't changed much. The pandemic put this into high-relief as mothers much more than fathers left the labor force, and stayed out through the pandemic, because of care responsibilities. While both mothers and fathers left the labor force in large numbers at the beginning of the pandemic, by the end of last year fathers mostly recovered losses while mothers did not.
Q: Why the discrepancy by gender?
A: Women are more represented in the service sector, such as restaurants and retail, as well as personal care occupations, all of which were hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Even as employment has rebounded in the hardest hit sectors, many mothers remained out of the labor force because of caregiving responsibilities.
Q: Of course, a lot of men lost jobs, too. Did this recession look different for them compared with previous recessions?
A: In the previous four recessions, men lost jobs at higher rates than women since men tended to work in the occupations more affected by those recessions. During those recessions women made gains relative to men. But since the beginning of this recession, female labor force participation has dropped to levels not seen in 35 years.
Q: On a positive note, many fathers expressed great satisfaction spending more time with their kids after being laid off or unable to travel for work. How do we keep that momentum going when COVID-19 is behind us?
A: Typically, fathers have opportunities to take on more child care responsibilities. Many mothers, especially in Minnesota, are working full time and still taking on more of these responsibilities.
Q: You know a little bit about that now. Congratulations!
A: I am learning about all of this firsthand as my wife and I have an 11-month-old daughter. While I recognize that my skills in changing diapers, dressing a baby, etc., are all nascent, the more I engage in these activities, the more I develop my own attachment and connection with our daughter. I also witness every day the invaluable work of mothering.
Q: That's certainly easier when your company backs you up. What was your parental leave experience?
A: I was fortunate to have six weeks of paternity leave and it gave a cohesion to my relationship with my wife and my daughter that we maintained even when I began working more. I recognize how many others don't have that benefit and that family units really need support around an infant. Our society would be better overall if we found ways to support families in this way.
Q: Is the hybrid model helpful or stressful for single parents?
A: Caring for children and working is a challenging combination. Many parents working from home don't attempt to care for children and work at the same time, but instead use child care. Some parents prefer to have their children at home during the pandemic while other families just can't afford child care. Child care problems can lead parents to turn down jobs or leave jobs, and low income workers are more highly impacted. While Minnesota offers government-funded child care subsidies and early learning scholarships, they aren't funded at levels to reach all eligible families.
Q: So we have to do better for all families.
A: Research shows that high-quality early care and education programs can help children prepare to succeed in school and the associated benefits can yield a societal return on investment as high as $16 for every $1 invested, particularly when reaching our most vulnerable children. Child care also helps facilitate living-wage jobs that bring financial stability to a family, which is beneficial to parents and their children.
Q: What does the future of work look like to you?
A: One key theme throughout the pandemic is that people are adaptable. Last spring workers, companies, schools and government agencies established entirely different operational norms overnight. We hear that working from home has advantages that organizations may want to continue. But while workers have adapted to virtual meetings and communication, in some cases much is lost without at least some in-person contact. I think it is fair to say that work in the future will not revert completely back to 2019, but it also won't look like it did in 2020.