Years before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed a million more women than men out of the U.S. workforce, international research showed gender equality in employment plays a key role in strengthening economies.

Now, getting working moms and other women back to their jobs is imperative for our country’s recovery from a pandemic-induced decline, said a panel of experts during the latest Deseret News event.

“Women are are incredibly important to how our economy functions and our economic growth,” Camille Busette, director of the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said during the virtual discussion released Thursday. “I think those are the two most important takeaways from the COVID moment.”

Women, especially women of color, have disproportionately borne the burden of job loss during the pandemic, she said, with many let go from industries like hospitality and food service or forced to leave their jobs to care for children when schools closed.

According to the White House, since the pandemic started women’s employment has fallen more than men’s employment in percent terms every month. That changed in March, when the percentage of employment losses for both genders equaled out. Still, about 5 million women have been out of the workforce for 26 weeks or more, Busette said.

The event, titled, “Pandemic Unemployment Disparity: Women are Bearing the Brunt and Could be Key to Economic Recovery,” was a follow-up to a February discussion on the same topic. Wednesday’s panel took a global view, with panelists citing studies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Israel and emphasizing the importance of reopening schools as well as other solutions.

“This is a really multifaceted problem and it can’t be figured out in a 45-minute discussion,” said Deseret News reporter Lois Collins, who acted as moderator.

Busette was joined by Angela Rachidi, Rowe Scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Barbara Risman, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and editor-in-chief of the journal Gender & Society, and Deseret News opinion writer Savannah Hopkinson — all working moms.

“I think my experience as a mom has only enhanced my passion for these topics. There is value in lived experience,” said Hopkinson, who gave brith to her first child in October. “Women do 75% of the unpaid work that bolsters the economy, but that work is undervalued.”

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Opening schools

Collins opened the discussion with a topic that is top of mind for families with kids — reopening schools.

Risman responded by highlighting two studies published in a special issue of the journal Gender and Society. One study showed that in U.S. counties where schools stayed open, there was no change in the gender employment gap between men and women, whereas in places where schools closed or there was a hybrid model, it was women who left their jobs or reduced their hours to accommodate their kids’ needs.

Another study showed that within a month of reopening schools in Canada, labor force participation for college-educated women bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. The numbers for non-college-educated women also bounced back, but not as quickly, she said. Collins wrote about this research in an article published last month.

“In Chicago, I found it very frustrating when bars and restaurants were allowed to open but not schools,” said Risman. “The research suggested that maybe we should prioritize schools rather than leisure activities for adults.”

With several states still maintaining partial school closures, Collins said getting schools open so that women can go back to work should be a priority. But public health comes first.

“I would never quibble with that public health decision because we’re dealing with this scary unknown killer pandemic,” said Collins.

Risman emphasized the need for a broader cultural shift, so the burden and responsibility of caring for children at home in a time of need is born equally between genders. That shift necessitates greater workplace flexibility for mothers and fathers, she said.

“We have to think about policy as making possible a world where women are have equal rights and men have equal responsibility,” said Risman.

Private and public solutions

Busette offered a list of solutions she believes will create more flexibility for families and make it easier for women to participate fully in the workforce: a permanent child tax credit, paid leave for all, retirement accounts not tied to employers, living-wage legislation and investment in the caregiving infrastructure, including child care.

She noted her support for the Biden administration designating spending on care work as “infrastructure investment” for its $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

Rachidi on the other hand, cautioned against expecting government to provide solutions for all these problems. She said federal policies sometimes have unintended consequences that can make the situation worse. For example, in some countries, paid leave policies have actually widened the gender pay gap because women miss out on opportunities for promotion and advancement when they take long breaks from their careers.

2013 study by two Cornell University economists looked at 22 countries and found that while “family-friendly” policies in Europe encouraged greater workforce participation for women, those women were more likely to take lower-level or part-time jobs. As a result, European women were less likely to be managers than women in the United States.

But working part time is preferred for a plurality of American women. According to Rachidi, survey data suggests 40% of women with children under 18 want to work part time, compared to about a quarter of women who want to work full time and a quarter who want to stay home full time. Those desires don’t match reality, however, and more women work full time than would like to, Rachidi said.

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“This gets back to this flexibility issue,” said Rachidi. “The direction we need to go is to change organizational and corporate culture, where flexibility and taking time off and not working a typical 9-5 schedule is not viewed as a negative thing, it’s actually just part of the culture and something that all workers do.”

Rachidi said the private sector can play a bigger role. After she had children, she said she had a conversation with her boss about how she could still have the flexibility to do her job while working remotely. She wishes more female employees would have experiences like that with their employers.

Reopening schools and providing child care and employment support to women is all about meeting individual families’ needs and repairing the parts of our economy that rely on female labor, Collins said.

“It’s a question of what women want,” said Collins. “If women want to be in the workplace, they should be able to be in the workplace.”

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