Countless studies confirm that the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected working mothers, who’ve continued to struggle to meet the needs of their families and employers. This was the first time in American history that women had left or been forced out of work at higher rates than men, thus the moniker, “The She-Cession.” Today, despite a historic candidates’ market and widespread hiring challenges, the January 2022 jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that there are still 1.8 million fewer women in the U.S. workforce than there were in February 2020. Men, meanwhile, have regained all their labor-force losses from that same timeframe.
The majority of these “lost” women are moms. During the height of the pandemic, a mass exodus of mothers left the workforce as schools and daycare centers shut down. One in three childcare jobs were lost as an estimated 40% of childcare centers shut their doors for good. The industry is still clawing its way back.
A stereotypical, yet pervasive, scene began to unfold as the data stacked up. Dual-income parents with frontline jobs had no choice but to find alternative care arrangements for their children, create opposite schedules, or have someone quit or dramatically reduce hours — particularly as lower-income workers are the least likely to have access to paid leave. In the case of the latter, for heterosexual couples, it was typically the woman who experienced job loss or reduced responsibilities. From the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2021, the number of high-school-educated women in the workforce decreased 6% — more than tripling the 1.8% contraction among comparably educated men.
And for single parents — 75% of whom are mothers and disproportionately women of color? Their truly impossible experiences are summed up here: “It’s just drowning.”
Heterosexual families where both spouses could both work from home faced a different kind of dilemma, and studies show fathers more often retreated to home offices while mothers frenzied around the living areas, attempting a perilous balancing act between Zoom meetings and Zoom classes, work responsibilities and lunch-making. An October 2021 study published by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found it was primarily these mothers — college-educated moms with a bachelor’s degree or more, who were in jobs with telework options — who experienced the highest levels of job loss. Theoretically, these are the women who had the choice and ability to keep working. But faced with the crippling burnout of working the equivalent of two, if not three, full-time jobs simultaneously, for many mothers, quitting felt like “being forced to make a choice that was really no choice at all.”
I can relate. I was one of the “lucky ones,” with a spouse, a job I could do remotely, and an employer and manager who were rolling out initiatives to help me and my colleagues endure. Even so, 2020 was a blur of stress, fatigue, anxiety, and tears. Every week, I tried a new schedule, a new approach, a new panacea to help me navigate being quarantined at home with my five-year-old daughter, teaching her how to read and add, and growing into a promotion on an entirely new team — all while managing an extremely high-risk pregnancy. My husband works in sales via incoming calls and was relegated to our upstairs office, typically appearing only once during work hours to make his lunch and disappear again. I, meanwhile, had the more “flexible” job and attempted to work from the dining room table while entertaining, teaching, and caring for our daughter. I screamed at her more during that timeframe than I have the rest of her life combined. She had more screen time each day than she did in a “normal” month. I felt hopeless, exhausted, and like I was failing at everything — especially as a mother. My mental health was nonexistent. To be frank, it was the promise of maternity leave in August 2020 that kept me from considering quitting. I love my job and my company, but I had reached a complete breaking point. I didn’t know how much longer I could manage.
Of course, inequitable division of childcare is nothing new — nor is women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men to care for dependents. But the pandemic intensified this trend dramatically as each of these factors took its toll.
As a result, data as recent as August 2021 shows that about one third of all mothers in the workforce have scaled back or left their jobs — roughly 8 million workers.
What does this mean for mothers’ pay equity?
Prior to the pandemic, many metrics showed a sluggish, but consistent, narrowing of the difference in pay between men and women. Data from Visier Solutions, Inc., for example, has been tracking the gender pay gap in the U.S. and found that the gap narrowed by $0.06 between 2017 and 2020.
What’s interesting, however, is that a multitude of research suggests that the gender pay gap is actually better classified as a motherhood gap. Women without children are closer to parity with men, while mothers pay a significant career penalty. (Incidentally, most fathers get a raise.)
Women are paid, on average, $0.82 for every dollar paid to a man when both are working full-time and year-round. For mothers, however, that figure drops to $0.75 — a 9% decrease. Just as with childless women, this gap widens based on race and ethnicity: Latina mothers are paid $0.46 for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers; Native-American mothers are paid $0.50; and Black mothers are paid $0.52.
It’s worth noting that the above figures were calculated from 2019 data, which is the latest year we have available. The disparity is likely higher today. Multiplying this from “one dollar” to “thousands of dollars,” the pay gap for mothers results in monthly losses of $1,275 and annual losses of more than $15,000. This means that white mothers have to work more than 16 months to earn as much as white fathers were paid in 12.
There are various systemic and social factors at play here. Women tend to take on more of the burdens of caring for children and the family, and a much higher percentage of women temporarily leave the workforce after having children compared with men. As an alternative, many women remain employed but request more flexibility or choose to work fewer hours, and we know that workplaces have traditionally penalized women for this in terms of long-term career growth and promotion opportunities.
Some women decide to stay home with their children until they’re school-aged. This has substantial economic consequences. A 2018 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that an employment gap of four years or more leads to a shocking 65% reduction in annual earnings. Even a modest one-year gap is correlated with a 39% decrease.
Many mothers have now been out of the workforce for nearly two years due to the pandemic. What will the long-term impact be on their ability to earn pay raises, gain skills, get promoted, and save for retirement and Social Security?
Globally, it’s been estimated that women lost at least $800 billion in income globally from 2020 to 2021. That’s more than the GDPs of 98 countries combined.
The good news
There are, however, some positive trends that could contribute to parity for working moms. The “Great Resignation” has prompted employers to increase pay significantly, and the ensuing hiring challenges mean plenty of opportunities for women to rejoin the workforce. The rise in long-term remote work, increased flexibility, and other improved benefits are also likely to play a meaningful role in helping mothers navigate working full-time while caring for their families.
Meanwhile, initiatives like The Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed House approval in April 2021, seeks to address the wage gap by closing loopholes, strengthening provisions for holding employers accountable, and making it easier for women and people of color to challenge pay disparities as a group. It would also make it illegal for employers to ask candidates about salary history during interviews — something that many states have already banned. Movements toward pay equity via pay transparency, such as Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, have also gained momentum.
Beyond that, employers can take meaningful action to both attract and retain working mothers — and ensure that they are compensated fairly in the process. Tactics to consider include: conducting regular pay audits, being careful to look at pay disparity among specific jobs rather than auditing all female and male pay; providing and encouraging paid leave; prioritizing workplace flexibility to include remote work, flextime, job sharing, and open leave; and building a culture of inclusion and belonging for all.
The pandemic brought to light the importance mothers play in the world economy. And, consequently, the necessity of accessible and affordable childcare.
When I returned from maternity leave in November 2020, I was fortunate to have access to a high-quality daycare center where I felt safe enrolling my then-three-month-old daughter. We enrolled my kindergartener in a small private school with tiny class sizes. The ability to return to the work I love, and being able to fully focus on it, can be best described as “life-changing” (though, of course, there have been many fears, concerns, and challenges along the way).
I am constantly reminded that I am one of the lucky ones. Many daycare centers remain closed nationwide. Those that are open have hiked up tuition considerably due to staffing shortages, inflation, and increased expenses due to heightened safety protocols. Some schools have frequently returned to remote learning in light of Delta and Omicron surges. And many mothers are still struggling to find roles comparable to those they left two years ago.
What’s more, I have been supported by both my manager and UKG every step along the way. Our corporate values, culture, support and flexibility have been what’s allowed me to continue contributing meaningful work while remaining present for my children (and navigating the inevitable quarantines and sicknesses along the way).
We don’t know what the next variant might look like or how the next few years will unfold, but we know this: Investing in childcare and investing in our mothers is an investment in the future, and an investment in our economy.
The first step is recognizing the price all mothers have paid, and committing to compensate them fairly.