Women’s Careers Could Take Long-Term Hit From Coronavirus Pandemic
| le 15 July 2020
Disruption caused by Covid-19 related shutdowns highlights how women’s careers often take a back seat when duty calls at home
By Lauren Weber – The Wall Street Journal
Juggling work and family has never been easy. Under pandemic conditions, some women say it is proving impossible.
School closures and shelter-in-place orders have taken a toll on both men and women, who are coping with the pull of changed jobs and caregiving responsibilities.
For many, the disruption caused by the coronavirus has also shown how stubborn traditional gender roles and pay disparities can be—and how women’s careers often take a back seat when duty calls at home. Without schools or caregivers to rely on, some women are making the difficult choice to leave the workforce or cut back their hours, despite the prospect of long-term damage to their finances and careers.
More working parents could find themselves at a tipping point as districts decide whether to open schools this fall amid rising virus infections. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, is expected to return with a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, while children in Los Angeles and San Diego will start the school year online, decisions met with frustration from parents.
Opening economies without schooling and child care is a “recipe for a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers,” said Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the founder of the Center for WorkLife Law.
Employers and policy makers have been slow to grasp the scale of the crisis, she added, partly because in the U.S., caregiving is considered a private responsibility.
Florida State University administrators faced a backlash recently after telling employees they wouldn’t be allowed to care for children while working remotely. The school later said staff should work with supervisors to set schedules enabling them to meet family and work obligations.
“What are families supposed to do? Wave a magic wand and have these people disappear?” Ms. Williams asked. From April to June, calls to her center’s hotline, which offers legal help to people who think they are encountering discrimination because of their caregiver responsibilities, rose 250% compared with the same period last year.
Women are exiting the workforce at a slightly higher rate than men, federal data show. In March, 57.3% of U.S. women were either working or looking for work. That fell to 56.1% in June, a drop of 2.1%. Male labor-force participation dropped 1.9% in that period, from 68.5% to 67.2%. Those numbers may be fluid, given that households are still awaiting clarity on school and care situations.
Joanna Carrillo was hoping to return to work this summer after taking a year with her baby, but Covid-19 changed her plans. A project manager for Tesla Inc.’s solar business, she left that role last year, concluding that the 10-hour-plus workdays that were common during busy stretches would be incompatible with caring for her daughter.
Ms. Carrillo, 31, had hoped to place her child in day care as she started her job search, but it is unclear when the center will reopen or if it will accept new children. She heard a spot might come open in August, but said she worries a second wave of infections could shut day care down again.
“Do I apply for a job and then my daughter doesn’t have anywhere to go for day care, or do I put her in day care and then I don’t get a job?” said Ms. Carrillo, who lives in Colorado. Her husband, who also works in renewable energy, remains employed so she has put off her search until they have more clarity on child-care options.
In some families, women sacrifice their careers because their male partners earn more. In 2018, about 70% of husbands in dual-income heterosexual couples earned more than their wives, according to Census Bureau data. Even when men are eager to take on more work at home, they can be thwarted by inflexible expectations at work, Ms. Williams said.
“Employers kind of know they’re supposed to be flexible when it comes to mothers but they haven’t gotten the memo when it comes to fathers,” she said.
A survey conducted this spring by the Boston Consulting Group found that, on average, women were spending 15 hours more a week on domestic labor than men were, at 65 hours versus 50 hours, compared with a pre-Covid balance of 35 hours and 25 hours.
“That’s almost two days more of a secondary job,” said Matt Krentz, a managing director at BCG. “When the trade off comes and it’s not sustainable, the solution often falls to the woman taking the step back.”
BCG’s study recommended that managers make accommodations for employees juggling caregiving duties and factor those added responsibilities into performance reviews.
Employers have historically regarded child care and eldercare as issues for families to manage on their own. Roughly 6% of employers offered subsidized child care in 2020, and 19% of employers made emergency or backup child-care services available to employees, according to Willis Towers Watson, an advisory firm. Overall, many child-care benefits have stalled or shrunk in recent years, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Rare are employers like Deidre Anderson, chief executive of an early-childhood education center in Kansas City, Mo. When Ms. Anderson called on dozens of teachers to return to work this spring, some said they couldn’t come back because they had to care for their own children. Many are single mothers with few backup options, she said.
Ms. Anderson persuaded a local charter school to host a day camp in June for her employees’ children. Nearly 20 children attended, and their mothers were able to return to work.
“We can’t meet our mission of providing care for children whose parents need to go to work if our own staff can’t work,” she said.
People who drop out of the labor force for an extended period not only miss out on pay, they also often fall behind on raises that come from longer tenure and employer contributions to retirement accounts.
Ellen Minor, a 60-year-old teacher at a Menifee, Calif., charter school, considered taking early retirement to care for her 93-year-old father, who lives with her and requires full-time care. Early in the pandemic, she pulled him out of a nursing home where he was receiving temporary therapy, and she was reluctant to hire aides because of virus risks.
Ms. Minor’s husband, a manager of a large retail store, considered taking retirement, too, but the couple didn’t want to lose his larger salary. She said she would most likely reduce her work schedule, which will reduce the salary used to calculate her pension.
“I’m going downhill instead of uphill,” she said.
Before the pandemic struck, Clara Kim worked at a religious nonprofit that trains pastors. Ms. Kim and her husband, a lawyer, have a 16-month-old son born with a medical condition requiring extra care and caution. When lockdowns began, they asked their son’s caregiver to stop coming in, since she also worked with elderly clients, so the extra work fell to Ms. Kim.
“I was one of the first women in my company to say, ‘I can’t do this,’’’ said Ms. Kim, 41. Working full time and caring for her son left her sleepless and spent, and she talked with her employer about taking leave or going part-time. Her husband wanted to split child care, but she urged him to focus on work.
“It was very pragmatic based on income,” she said. “But it was also the mom thing.”
Ms. Kim took a two-month leave of absence, using a provision in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. She was considering leaving permanently when her husband lost his job and word arrived that furloughs were coming to her workplace, too.
Ms. Kim returned to work in early June and was laid off not long after. She is now doing freelance writing and consulting.
“I almost gave up my career voluntarily,” she said. “No one will notice or do it intentionally, but women are just going to drop out. They’re just going to get squeezed.”