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Pandemic forced mothers to cut paid working hours. It can have huge consequences for their careers

Pandemic forced mothers to cut paid working hours. It can have huge consequences for their careers

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As the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. unfolded, mothers of young children cut their paid working hours to make room for child care. Their spouses did not, a study from Washington University found.

In a research paper published this month, Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology, showed that mothers scaled back their paid working hours by two hours a week — nearly double the reduction women experienced during the recession of 2007-2009.

Caitlyn Collins

Caitlyn Collins is an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Even though women and men are both working from home in large numbers, the pandemic hasn’t narrowed disparities in time spent on child care and housework. If anything, Collins’ team found, the gap has widened.

“We were saddened but not surprised to see that, indeed, it is women who seem to be dialing back at work in ways that are deleterious for their long-term career trajectories,” she said.

Ritika Sahai-Kar, 32, an electrical engineer from Creve Coeur, is mother to a 10-month-old daughter. When the region went into lockdown in March, Sahai-Kar and her husband, a software engineer, intended to split child care responsibilities evenly. Still, Sahai-Kar feels she tends to do more child care than her spouse. “It is natural for a baby to be more connected to her mom,” she said.

Courtney English, 29, of Ballwin, is a lawyer, a small business owner and mother to a 6-month-old infant. During the pandemic, English’s work was pushed aside to tend to the baby, she said. “In my work I do a lot of virtual training for entrepreneurs, and my daughter has been on a call with me a couple of times,” English laughed.

The study is a collaborative effort between scientists from the U.S. and Australia, and included researchers from the Maryland Population Research Center and the University of Melbourne.

Scientists say their research was motivated by their own experiences of pandemic parenting. Three of the four authors have young children at home and worked on the manuscript while balancing child care responsibilities.

The researchers used data from the government’s Current Population Survey. “(It is) really cool because we could see how work hours were different between mothers and fathers in the same household in February, which was prior to the pandemic in the U.S., and in April, when schools were closed and day cares were closed, and almost everyone’s lives in the country were affected,” said William Scarborough, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and a co-author of the study.

To examine changes in work hours made by choice, scientists were careful to include only families where neither parent was laid off or furloughed. Further, they selected families only where both spouses were able to work remotely, which excluded workers in hard-hit industries like travel, restaurants and retail.

Scientists found that even in these largely middle-class heterosexual families where both partners have equal employment opportunities, women reduced their paid work hours four to five times as much as their husbands.

“Two hours a week might not sound like a lot, but that’s major. This is a really huge reduction when you think about how (it) accrues over time, week by week, month by month, year by year,” said Collins, who published a book last year about how women manage careers and caregiving.

Scarborough, who is a father to a 2-year-old, said that even though he studies gender inequality and is used to seeing it everywhere, he found the results surprising. “I thought we’ve come a little bit farther along, that fathers started to view their commitments between work and family more equally and that we would see them at least reducing their work hours somewhat to increase their household contributions. But we didn’t really see that.”

Collins said she is concerned that the pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities between mothers and fathers in the workforce.

“If we don’t have sympathetic employers or employers that understand the challenges that face mothers to a greater degree than fathers, mothers might be penalized for this reduction in work hours, they might face barriers to professional advancement or promotions or pay raises,” Scarborough said. “If workplaces have merit-based raises, and they make those decisions without a gender consciousness of how [household] dynamics play out, we are going to see that men are receiving merit-based raises to a much greater extent than women.”

Lawyer English said that her husband’s employer in the insurance industry has not been particularly lenient: “Thankfully, most of my clients are women, so [when the baby appears on a Zoom call] they understand.”

Sahai-Kar said companies seem to have adapted to the “new normal” and expect employees to get as much done as before the pandemic. “Now there’s even more pressure,” she said.

Fathers need to step up

The researchers say their study shows that unequal division of housework remains a problem, even as the gender wage gap has shrunk in the workplace.

“Hopefully fathers realize that (caregiving) is equally their responsibility. Even if it requires a reduction in their own work hours, this work has to get done one way or another, and it’s unfair that it is borne disproportionately by women,” Collins said.

In future studies, Collins and her team hope to explore how household dynamics play out during the pandemic and how those dynamics work for different types of families, including low-income families and families of color.

“We know that the uneven division of labor in the household is borne everywhere, but the consequences of stepping away from work to care for one’s family are not only gendered but also deeply racialized and classed,” Collins said. “So it is often women of color who are negatively affected in the workforce for their need to take care of family members.”

The findings do not suggest that remote work should not happen, Collins emphasized. She said employers need to offer flexibility and adjust expectations about what work can be done when caregiving is taking place simultaneously.

“Telecommuting is one very important option available to parents in jobs where that’s possible, but it needs to be used by both men and women in a way that doesn’t disproportionately negatively impact mother’s work hours and not father’s.”

Still, the team thinks progress is possible.

“The times are really hard right now, all families are feeling the pinch,” Scarborough said, noting political discussions about expanding the social safety net and child care support. “More than ever, people are realizing how central the care is to the economy. Hopefully this will be a turning point.”

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