The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt women in the workforce. Study after study and statistic after statistic paint an especially bleak picture for working mothers, who’ve been driven out of the job market to care for their families with schools and day cares closed.
“It’s easy to look at this as women leaving the workforce, but I like to view it as women leaving a paid job for an unpaid job,” Savannah Hopkinson, a Deseret News opinion writer who frequently writes about family policy, said Thursday during a Deseret News webinar featuring a panel of experts on the pandemic’s impact on women. “And we can’t really go back to normal, because normal is what caused this crisis in the first place.”
As she spoke, the other panelists all nodded, from New York City to Nashville to Bountiful, Utah.
Titled “Pandemic Unemployment Disparity: Women Bearing the Brunt,” the webinar convened thought leaders to discuss what C. Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, has dubbed the “shecession.” A million more women than men have lost their jobs, per the Center for American Progress, and nearly 3 million, per CBS News, have left the labor force during the pandemic. “We wanted to know why that’s the case,” said Deseret News InDepth reporter Erica Evans, who moderated the panel.
The other panelists were Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code and sponsor of the Marshall Plan for Moms; Susan R. Madsen, an author, scholar, thought leader and founder of Utah Women and Leadership Project; Sarah Jane Glynn, an expert in work-family policy, gender wage inequality and family economic security at the Center for American Progress; and Art Raymond, an award-winning Deseret News business reporter who has covered the pandemic’s effect on employment.
The idea for the panel started with a story Raymond published Jan. 24 titled “Moms are bearing the brunt of U.S. COVID-19 job losses.” With the pandemic still raging, the timing felt right to convene a group of thought leaders to discuss where we are as a society, and where we could go from here.
That’s precisely how Evans guided the discussion, devoting the first 25 minutes of the 50-minute event to the existing problems and the latter 25 minutes to potential solutions. It was a personal conversation for Evans, who was inspired by her own life to report on why telework could be beneficial for working moms. She got married in 2020, and her husband’s job led her to relocate to Boise. Thanks to virtual meetings, she was able to keep working for the Deseret News. “In a different world, I would have had to give up my job to go live with my husband,” she said. “And I’m just so grateful that that wasn’t the case.” But she also knows many women don’t have that option.
Especially women in lower-wage jobs — which according to the Brookings Institution are disproportionately occupied by women to begin with — and especially women of color, who disproportionately occupy those jobs compared to white women; they’ve been left particularly vulnerable to the economy’s contraction. Meanwhile, many working mothers have left their jobs because of needs at home, perpetuating what Saujani called a 1950s sensibility where leaders closed down schools and day cares without worrying about who would handle such a radical upheaval to the existing social order. As it turned out, moms handled it, she said, and at a great cost. “Women and moms are simply getting crushed,” she added. “Now we’ve reached our breaking point.”
Indeed, they’ve had other reasons to reach their breaking point. Like a study from Utah-based software company Qualtrics that found 34% of men working from home with children got promotions during the pandemic, compared to 9% of women. Or the Bureau of Labor Statistics December jobs report that showed women accounted for all 140,000 of the net jobs lost. Or an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center that showed in September 2020, four times more women than men left the workforce. That, Hopkinson said, is the most jarring statistic of them all. “That’s the one people need to remember,” she said. “That’s not just double — that’s more than triple.”
Vice President Kamala Harris agrees that something needs to be done. Writing in The Washington Post, she called the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women in the workforce “a national emergency.”
“We’ve always treated moms as America’s social safety net,” Saujani said, “and I think we’re done.”
So what can be done? At the policy level, Saujani has a proposal called the “Marshall Plan for Moms,” which calls for “long overdue policies like paid family leave, affordable childcare and pay equity,” along with its most controversial measure: temporary $2,400 monthly stimulus checks for moms. The idea is to compensate moms for their unpaid domestic labor. “I find it ironic in our country that we’re so excited about UBI — paying people for not working!” Saujani said during the panel, “but the idea of paying mothers for working is radical.”
The Marshall Plan for Moms has taken out full-page ads in The New York Times and Washington Post in recent days, addressed directly to President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress, respectively. The New York Times letter was signed by 50 prominent women, including Amy Schumer, Gabrielle Union and Charlize Theron; the Washington Post letter was signed by 50 prominent men, including Andrew Yang, Don Cheadle and Stephen Curry. And Saujani doesn’t believe that paying moms reinforces that they belong at home; it’s a short-term solution, she says, meant to counterbalance a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted moms and women.
But solutions must go beyond policy, Hopkinson said. We must, as a society, get past that 1950s mindset to make real progress. One more statistic: Women’s share of the workforce is down to levels last seen in the 1980s. “The fact that we lost 30 years of economic progress for women in nine months should scare the heck out of us,” Saujani said. A New York Times column argued that backslide is representative of feminism’s failures, but Hopkinson doesn’t see it that way. “Feminism did not fail women,” she wrote in a Deseret News column. “Society failed families.
“When disaster struck, America’s only backup system was its societal expectation of mothers.”
Those expectations must change, she said, if America wishes to live up to its lofty rhetoric about the importance of families. Working moms are not only normal but necessary for many American families, and both culture and policy, she said, need to reflect that reality. Because having a family, she said, should not be treated as “a special privilege only open to those who can afford it.”
The U.S. has work to do to reach those goals. “The U.S. is quite far behind, really, all of the developed countries — and a few developing countries,” Madsen said. “We are a different society, and we’re changing, and so we do look at being different than, especially, some of the European countries. Yet, when we look at moving forward, we have to be more like these other countries if we really want men and women working together, which we need for our economy.”
The pandemic, Saujani argued, presents the perfect opportunity to harness “populist rage” and channel it into change. “We can’t build America back better unless we build motherhood back better,” she said to conclude the panel.
“All of these cracks that were already there have widened,” Glynn added. And cracks can only widen so much before the whole structure collapses. “The economy doesn’t work without women, the economy doesn’t work without mothers, and we have to change something and fix this.”
That sounds a bit bleak, but Hopkinson came away from the panel hopeful. “I hope the viewers come away feeling rallied” she said, “and motivated to start afresh.”