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The Pandemic’s Setbacks for Working Moms

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Women have shouldered more child care and housework responsibilities than men since long before the coronavirus era. But with schools, day care centers and camps closed, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated that disparity. Even with men pitching in more, women are scrambling to balance their work with household obligations.

Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu, who cover business and economics for The Times, recently reported that the effects of the pandemic on working mothers will last far beyond this period of crisis. Their article showed that a generation of working women will experience setbacks that may have lifelong consequences for their earning potential and career opportunities.

Some of the women they interviewed are balancing child care and jobs by working late-night or early morning shifts. Others have reduced their working hours or have quit their paid work altogether. One woman interviewed left the highest-paying role she had ever had: “I admitted to myself that I couldn’t do it all.”

Not surprisingly, the pressure is heaviest for single mothers who are the sole income providers for their families. Those who have lost their jobs have had the cumbersome task of seeking unemployment benefits and applying for new work while simultaneously helping their children with remote learning.

I asked Ms. Cohen and Ms. Hsu to share what they had learned in the course of their reporting. While some of the economists they cited had grim predictions, the reporters also shared some of the possibilities they see for reforms promoting work-life balance and workplace parity in the long term.

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Experts have predicted the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on female representation in the workplace. What does that mean in practice?

PATRICIA COHEN Economic downturns can have long-lasting effects way beyond the duration of the downturn itself. For instance, when new graduates come out of college during a downturn, they may have a harder time finding a job or they may have to take a lower position than they had hoped to, and that can have impacts that will last over the course of their careers. It’s the same thing with working mothers: With schools closed and day care options limited, a lot of mothers may either drop out of the work force or have to work part time.

In your reporting, you cited the economist Betsey Stevenson, who said that the pandemic had exposed some of the gender inequities in American workplaces that existed long before Covid-19. What, in your mind, are the most egregious and which ones are the hardest to address?

COHEN Responsibilities both for child care and for housework fall much more heavily on women than on men. Between the workday hours, let’s say from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., mothers tend to handle 70 percent of the joint household and child care responsibilities compared with men.

Why did the Covid-19 pandemic put those gender inequities “on steroids,” as the economist Claudia Goldin put it?

TIFFANY HSU Because so many companies started to ask their employees to work from home, you had this situation where mothers were having to juggle work and care for their children simultaneously. And on top of that, they have housework. They have their own personal health to worry about. We heard stories of women who are waking up at 3 a.m. and working until 8 a.m., and then they’re taking a chunk of their child care duties for the day.

And that’s not taking into account women who are unemployed and are trying to file for jobless benefits and look for new jobs while juggling child care. We had one woman who mentioned she was on the phone constantly trying to get through to the state government to get her benefits in order. She had to take her kids with her to the store because she couldn’t leave them at home, so she was getting dirty looks while she was shopping. And she was just so overwhelmed that sometimes she had to hide in the bathroom to catch a breath.

COHEN We’re not even just talking about the normal child care responsibilities. School’s out so you’re supposed to be teaching your kids, too. Maybe you’re used to having your mother or family members help out, but now you’re worried about endangering them, so they can’t pitch in.

You have reported on the experiences of single moms versus partnered moms. What are the differences, or similarities, in how they are experiencing the pandemic?

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HSU Overall, we found that partnered moms generally had more options than the single moms did. For example, we had one mother whose husband is a medical professional, and she was able to step back from a very high-paying job in order to focus on a volunteer project — in addition to spending more time with her two daughters. That’s not something that a lot of single mothers are able to do at this time. They don’t have the luxury of quitting a job because they’re afraid of a potential Covid-19 infection. They’re the sole income providers for their families. While there are many partnered mothers who told us that their income is necessary and they can’t give it up, generally speaking, the single mothers were in more of a bind.

Some economists have said that the current crisis for working families may prompt changes that will benefit working mothers in the long run, like child care and flexible work arrangements. Do you feel optimistic this will happen?

COHEN I think it’s too early to tell a lot of things. The U.S. is going through a convulsive moment. I don’t know exactly how things are going to play out, but hopefully over the long term it could create pressure for structural changes from businesses as well as from the government.

HSU Some major companies — PepsiCo, Uber — have promised to provide more resources, more flexible working arrangements for parents, to allow more telecommuting, establishing separate shifts, that sort of thing. But then again, companies promise a lot of things and often don’t follow through, so it is hard to say.

Are there more elements of your reporting or insights that you would like to share?

COHEN People in the United States are often very reluctant to look at models from other countries that could be applied here, or they think that somehow the U.S. is unique. But the reality is that there are a lot of policies that are a part of the normal work experience in advanced industrialized countries, in Europe and elsewhere — paid time off, sick leave, day care, parental care. I think there should be more efforts to look and compare internationally what’s going on in other places.

HSU I had several women mention to me that the pandemic has underscored the importance of networks for them. That includes parents who can help watch the kids, nanny shares, women who swap child care shifts. But the pandemic has made it very clear that they can’t always rely on those networks when conditions like this strike, or even when they go back to work. The networks women rely on to have satisfying, lucrative careers are actually built on very fragile foundations.

COHEN And it’s not only about women with satisfying, lucrative careers. It’s precarious for so many people just to make a bare living and pay rent, and put food on the table. It’s clear how that whole edifice you’ve built can come tumbling down when one piece is removed, whether it’s school or having someone to pick up your child.

This article was adapted from In Her Words, a newsletter about women and gender. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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