Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace

As if working mothers did not have enough to worry about, experts are now sounding the alarm that progress toward gender equality may be the latest in a long list of casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.

Substantial research has shown that most professional gender gaps are in fact motherhood gaps: women without children are much closer to parity with men when it comes to salaries and promotions, but mothers pay a large career penalty.

Women tend to take on more of the burdens of caring for children and the family. To go to work, they need someone to help with that care. But fathers have been slow to change their behavior. And without subsidies, private child care can be prohibitively expensive.

Workplaces already tend to penalize women who choose to work fewer hours or need more flexibility, and that, too, is proving to be exacerbated in the pandemic.

“The bottom line is that based on decades of research we know that there was one institution that was effective at limiting gender inequality and encouraging women’s participation in the workplace, and it was early childhood education,” said Claudia Olivetti, an economist at Dartmouth College.

Now, the pandemic — and its hobbling of schools and child-care providers — is taking that away, too, piling pressure on working mothers, like me.

Around the world, working women are facing brutally hard choices about whether to stay home if they haven’t already been laid off. And the effect may be particularly severe in countries like the United States, where the pandemic is compounding inequalities that women already faced as a result of the lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave and affordable child care.

“The question,” said Dr. Olivetti, who studies gender inequality, “is how far back do we go?”

Israel is both an example of subsidized child care’s power to narrow gender gaps at work, and a cautionary tale about how easily the pandemic can shatter that fragile progress.

Nor was the phenomenon the result of layoffs being concentrated in heavily female jobs: Ms. Bowers found that in 18 out of 19 industries, women filed for unemployment at higher rates than their representation in the industry.

Women already held more precarious positions in the work force — working fewer hours, for less money, with shorter tenures and in lower-ranking jobs than men. The loss of child care limited many working mothers’ hours and availability even further, meaning they were often the first to be selected for layoffs and unpaid leave, the report concluded. And it noted that many families appear to be deciding that if they need one parent to give up a job and prioritize child care, it should be the lower-paid parent — usually the mother.

Sveta Skibinsky Raskin, a mother of five who lives in Jerusalem, worked as a writer while her children were in school and day care. But when the schools closed, she had to stop. “I tried for a week and I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “I can’t work in an environment that constantly requires my attention.”

Even when schools reopened in May, they were too unpredictable to rely on, she said. As we spoke, her two oldest children were self-isolating at home after some classmates tested positive for the virus. Now, with the country back in lockdown to combat a second wave, and schools closed once again, “a lot of women are having to make difficult choices,” she said.

It is likely to be worse in the United States.

“Trying to help working families ease this child-care constraint, it’s not just a gender inequality issue. It’s also an income inequality issue,” Dr. Olivetti said.

Women from minority and immigrant backgrounds are even more vulnerable to the pressures of lockdown, said Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan, who runs the Zinthiya Trust, a charity serving disadvantaged women in Leicester, England.

“They are often living in overcrowded living situations. Many had three, four children living in just a two or three-bedroom flat with extended family,” she said. “Many were also dealing with domestic violence.”

In addition to a very disappointed four year old, that made for a chaotic week of scrambling to juggle work, child care and the other complications of pandemic life.

I am fortunate to have an egalitarian marriage, patient editors and a job that can be done remotely at odd hours. But many parents simply cannot make such circumstances work.

In the United States, home-schooling “pods,” in which a small group of parents band together and hire tutors for their children at great expense, might help children learn, but they add to the burdens on working parents.

“Those pods require a lot of coordination,” Dr. Olivetti said. “And those costs will invariably fall primarily on mothers.”

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