How the Pandemic Is Affecting Working Mothers

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Wharton’s Janice Bellace speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about the impact of the pandemic on working mothers.

Unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic is affecting women so disproportionately that many analysts are referring to the economic crisis as a “she-cession.”

Since the pandemic began in February, women have been leaving the labor force in significantly greater numbers than men, according to several recent studies based on U.S. Census data. Working mothers are especially vulnerable; they’re nearly three times more likely than men not to be working because of child care demands.

The numbers signal a disturbing downward trend in gender equality in the workplace, and many researchers are concerned about the long-term implications of women’s employment.

“All women, but particularly working mothers, come under stress during normal times, and this pandemic has really put them under stress,” said Janice Bellace, Wharton emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics. “If they’re not working, what does that mean, particularly now that we’re starting a school year where there’s virtual schooling? Well, that means they really are exiting the labor force.”

Bellace spoke on the topic during a segment of the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM (listen to the podcast at the top of this page). She said 30 years of academic research has shown that leaving the labor force to take care of children lowers a women’s career earnings, retirement savings and chances for promotion.

Not Like 2008

This period is unlike the 2008 recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” because it heavily affected sectors that traditionally employ more men, including construction and financial services. Women are suffering more in this pandemic because they work in larger numbers than men in hospitality, retail and other types of service jobs that seldom offer health insurance or paid leave, often cannot be done remotely and which have been hard hit by lockdowns.

In addition, unemployment is even higher among minority women because they make up a majority of workers in the service sector, according to census data. Last week, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta president Raphael Bostic said minorities and the poor will be left out of the economic recovery if the government doesn’t take action, and the wealth gap will worsen.

“We already had the disparities, and the virus has driven a wedge into those gaps. In terms of health quality, in terms of jobs and attainment, in terms of savings and wealth,” Bostic said.

A Juggling Act

Plenty of working moms are telecommuting during the pandemic, but they are also struggling because their kids are home all day, too.

“Overall, the pandemic appears to have produced a unique immediate juggling act for working mothers of school-age children,” U.S. Census Bureau economist Misty Heggeness wrote in her aptly titled paper, “Why is Mommy so Stressed?

Bellace joins a growing chorus of experts who said the situation requires policies that help support working mothers, so they aren’t forced to choose between child care and work.

“I think, as soon as possible, there have to be some temporary and extraordinary measures to provide child care,” she said. “Women who work have figured out what to do in the summertime when the schools are closed. They patch things together. Churches and various associations have summer camps. Maybe we need something like that now, where communities come together and can provide some stop-gap measure of child care so that women don’t have to exit the labor force.”

“I think, as soon as possible, there have to be some temporary and extraordinary measures to provide child care.”

Bellace said many people don’t realize that the number of women in the U.S. labor force has actually slipped in the last 15 years, largely because of child care concerns.

“And let’s be blunt. Especially for single mothers, if one is in the lower-paid categories, child care is very expensive. People often think, ‘It’s better to stop working [because] my whole income is going to child care,’” she said. “As a country, we have not addressed what you do, particularly for children under 5, but even under 8. We don’t have a national or statewide policy on that, and those strains are beginning to show.”

Her recommendations are echoed by other experts, including the authors of a study published in the August edition of Socius who called for “strategic policy intervention” to address gender inequality during the pandemic and beyond.

“The pandemic will likely exacerbate inequalities between women and men in occupational attainment, lifetime earnings, and economic independence,” they wrote. “As cases continue to climb, governments must weigh the gendered consequences of COVID-19 to develop policies to support women’s, particularly mothers’, employment.”

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