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'Taking side steps, turning down promotions': How working mothers are barely coping during Covid-19

Working Mother's Subha Barry and other experts weigh in on the challenges moms in the workplace are grappling with amid the ongoing pandemic.
Daughter sitting in working mothers lap
“Women are losing jobs, so there’s the economic impact," said Working Mother's Subha Barry. "And as caregivers, whether homeschooling young ones, or caring for elderly parents, women have borne the burden, even in families where two parents may be working.”MoMo Productions / Getty Images

As president of Working Mother Media, and a mom herself, Subha Barry understands the juggling act that millions of women perform daily while managing careers and raising their children.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the pressures for many working mothers and families across the country in unprecedented ways.

“Women have disproportionately taken the brunt of this crisis,” Barry told Know Your Value in a phone interview. “Women are losing jobs, so there’s the economic impact. And as caregivers, whether homeschooling young ones, or caring for elderly parents, women have borne the burden, even in families where two parents may be working.”

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 2 million women nationwide have dropped out of the workforce, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Many of these women have been unemployed for 26 weeks or more, threatening gender gains made over the past decade.

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Since February 2020, the economy has lost more than 9.8 million jobs, and women account for 55 percent of those losses. Of the 140,000 positions lost in December 2020, strikingly, women accounted for all of them. Conversely, men gained 16,000 jobs that month.

The National Women’s Law Center, which advocates for gender justice central to the lives of women and girls, dug deeper into the numbers in a recent analysis.

Its experts found that there were nearly 2.1 million fewer women in the labor force in December than there were in February.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has hit women's jobs the hardest — especially those held by Black women and Latinas — and blown up our caregiving infrastructure,” said Emily Martin, Vice President for Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“In 2020, millions of women were pushed out of the labor force, which decreased their labor force participation to levels last seen a generation ago, in the 1980s,” she said. “We urgently need pandemic recovery efforts that recognize the gender impacts of this crisis and meet these caregiving needs by focusing on safe school reopening, investments in child care and paid family leave.”

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Working Mother Media recently unveiled the results of a new survey, one that sheds light on some of the challenges moms in the workplace are grappling with amid the ongoing pandemic.

Of more than 3,000 working women and men sampled across the country, nearly half (41 percent) of women noted increased stress because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, men were almost three times more likely to say they were coping with the Covid-19 pandemic better than working moms.

Among the respondents, at least 75 percent of working women with children (newborns to age 18), noted far less job flexibility. As many as 84 percent of working moms indicated their bosses don’t understand their workload responsibilities. Moreover, multicultural women (Black, Latinx, Asian) had the lowest opinions of their employers.

“The pandemic has really exposed the ugly underbelly of how working moms are coping,” said Barry. “Women are taking side steps, turning down promotions and other opportunities.”

It appears the pandemic has also exacerbated the already large racial and gender wage gap in America.

Before the pandemic, Black women were paid just 51 cents, Hispanic women 50 cents, Asian and Pacific Islander women 52 cents, and white women 75 cents of every dollar earned by white men.

One reason for this is that women constitute less than 20 percent of workers in high-paying trade sectors, according to new research released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

It also shows that women are over-represented in sectors that have been decimated by the pandemic: personal services, leisure and hospitality, education and health.

These sectors offer comparatively low earnings and are not expected to recover quickly once the pandemic subsides, noted Chandra Childers, a co-author of the study.

That dovetails with Labor Department numbers. The leisure and hospitality sector lost 498,000 jobs in December. Women make up 53 percent of the leisure and hospitality workforce.

The government sector lost 45,000 jobs in December. Women accounted for 91 percent of these losses despite making up 57.5 percent of the government workforce.

The retail trade sector gained 120,500 jobs in December. Women, who make up nearly 49 percent of that sector, accounted for less than half (44.2%) of those gains.

Those earnings are essential, other experts pointed out, to the economic security of women and their families.

“High quality jobs with clear pathways for higher wages and advancement will be key to recovery for women,” said C. Nicole Mason, President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “In addition to job creation efforts touted by the new Administration, there will be a need for reskilling and training for women to enter skilled and technical jobs, particularly among women of color, and those hardest hit by the pandemic."

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Workforce experts indicated that recovery efforts must be comprehensive and create opportunities for long-term economic security and mobility for women, and their families.

Nevertheless, Barry remains optimistic that working moms will weather the pandemic, with the caveat that “you can’t just shoot from the hip on this … a thoughtful approach is needed to finding solutions.”