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Coronavirus Is Forcing Women to Make a Difficult Choice: Keep Working or Opt Out?

For working families with young children, the summer of COVID-19 was all about cobbling together creative ways to keep the kids busy. When schools announced they would only open virtually or in a hybrid fashion, parents needed to find a better solution. Early data shows women are now opting out of the workforce to take care of children at a greater rate than men. In this week’s blog, we take a look at this trend and the effects it could have on women’s long-term economic and emotional wellness.

Coronavirus has reinforced traditional gender norms.

Since March, we’ve all been hunkering down at home, trying our best to manage work responsibilities, and also feel like we’re supporting our kids and spending enough quality time with them. But we’re all, well, home, and this means more chores related to cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

Many women—despite the fact that their partners are also working from home—report that they are handling the lion’s share of childcare and home duties, reinforcing the gender divide between men and women. According to a survey by Boston Consulting Group, working mothers now spend 65 hours per week on childcare and household duties—15 hours more per week than fathers.

Women were, in general, more likely to be the primary caregiver in a household, shouldering the majority of caregiving duties even before the pandemic. Now, as a recent study by Blue Cross Blue Shield shows, the pandemic is exacerbating caregiver stress and having serious effects on their physical, behavioral, and emotional wellness.

We’re also seeing more cracks in an already weakened childcare system.

If we thought the news about schools was bad, the prognosis for daycare is also grim. A survey of childcare centers and homes, conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), found that two out of five respondents are certain they will permanently close their doors without additional public assistance. And of those who are open, 86% are serving fewer children than before the pandemic.

This, coupled with the additional costs for staff, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment, is amplifying their economic hardship, which they fear could mean that only 18% of childcare programs can survive these circumstances for longer than a year. We already suffer from a lack of good childcare options in the U.S., so a mass closure of daycare centers will deal a huge blow to parents who rely on childcare to work.

Women are facing a heartbreaking choice—kids or career.

Early reports from the Census Bureau and Federal Reserve indicate that women are nearly three times more likely than men to remain home for the kids. A survey by Syndio found that 14% of women are considering quitting their jobs because of the family demands created by the coronavirus. A Brookings Institution report confirms that working mothers are predominantly the ones who sacrifice their careers and income.

And so, many women who are financially able have chosen to stay home—for now. Low-income working moms don’t have the luxury of opting out—but some are anyway because their jobs aren’t flexible, or they can’t secure decent childcare. Not surprisingly, this disproportionately affects women of color. According to the Syndio survey, 26% of Hispanic women said they were considering quitting their jobs, compared with 15% of both Black and Asian women and 12% of white women.

The effect on women’s long-term career and economic prospects—and their mental health—is concerning.

The Washington Post reports that the “sheer magnitude of the disruption to child care during the pandemic will probably affect women’s labor force participation and earnings trajectories for decades to come.” Experts project that the disruption is likely to contribute to earnings gaps and generally depress employment rates among women. Some are calling it a “she-cession,” as labor participation for women has fallen to the lowest level in a decade.

As we noted in our analysis of women’s well-being last fall, even if women eventually re-enter the workforce, gaps in employment often mean lower salaries, fewer promotions down the road, and less financial security in retirement due to decreased 401(k) contributions. In short, whether women leave the workforce temporarily to take care of a newborn or, as is the case today, to support children during a pandemic, they will most certainly feel the financial effects well into the future.

Any way you look at it, it’s heartbreaking that women feel like there’s no choice but to leave careers they have built up and nurtured over many years. We can only conjecture what the mental health implications might be down the road in terms of increased rates of anxiety and depression among women.

Employers are responding to retain key talent.

While many women feel like they have no choice but to leave the workforce to care for their kids, some employers are jumping in to help support them.

For example, many employers are mobilizing to retain staff by offering additional benefits, such as extended paid leave and flexible or reduced hours, subsidizing in-home care, establishing “study centers” where school-age children learning remotely can be monitored, and facilitating “pods” of students and teachers. Time will tell if it’s enough to support their workers’ well-being, or if we should be doing more to help people navigate these difficult moments.

The bottom line is parents, particularly women, need good childcare in order to make work and life actually work—even in the best of times when there isn’t a pandemic. The hope is that perhaps this will be a wake-up call to employers, and maybe even the federal government, that making childcare affordable and accessible should be a priority.

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