Some moms don't have the luxury of dropping out of the workforce

Since moms are more likely to handle child care, women's jobs have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and its economic crisis.

Before the pandemic hit, Juanita Dutton was working hard.

A single mother, she has two kids, 8 and 10, one with severe autism and the other with dyslexia. Dutton was employed as a hotel housekeeper while working toward her associate's degree in computer science. She was doing the impossible: surviving on a low income, taking care of her kids and working toward a better future.

"I was very busy," she said.

The one thing that made her life work, no matter how hard that life was: Her kids were in school full time.

Once everything shut down, there was no way for her to maintain her studies or go to work in Lawrence, Kansas. There is no one else to provide medical care or educational support for her kids.

"I didn't see how I can pay for day care and go to work at the same time," she said. "I would not even be able to provide for food or my rent or anything."

For five months, Dutton lived on her stimulus check plus $122 a week of unemployment, using food pantries to feed her kids. But once the government assistance dried up, she had to find work.

Disproportionate impact on women

Women's jobs and careers have been hit much harder than men's during the pandemic and its accompanying economic crisis. Women are disproportionately likely to handle the child care and domestic labor during the pandemic. A quarter of professional women are pondering leaving or downsizing their jobs, per a report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org. In September, 865,000 women dropped out or were forced out of the workforce, compared to 216,000 men.

"It's no coincidence that that is also when schools were supposed to start across the country," said C. Nicole Mason, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, who has labeled this economic downturn a "she-cession." "What's being asked of mothers is just impossible."

As one of those women trying desperately to keep one foot in the workforce, I've reduced my freelance hours to be there for my 8- and 11-year-old daughters. I know firsthand just how hard it is to navigate this new landscape, without the structural support of school and child care.

But, in one of many heartbreaking pandemic plot twists, that's the privileged position to be in. If you can stop working or reduce hours and still afford to eat and pay rent, you're one of the lucky ones — even if it means drastically shrinking income or giving up on dreams.

Some women, meanwhile, have to quit working even if it means descending into poverty. "It's not just parents who have the means to drop out," Mason said. "There are moms who've had to leave who couldn't afford to do so, but they had no choice because there was no one there to be able to take care of their children."

But most women financially can't leave their jobs, no matter what they have to sacrifice to keep them. About 64% of all US mothers are co- or primary breadwinners in their families; 84% of Black mothers are co- or primary breadwinners, according to a May 2019 Center for American Progress report. The more women are forced to leave the workforce, the worse the economic situation will be for families across the nation.

In-person vs. remote work challenges

Women of color have been hit particularly hard, because they're less likely to have jobs that can be done remotely. While 28% of men are able to work from home, only 22% of women can do so, according to an April 2020 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the impact of the pandemic on gender equality. Around 28% of Black women and 31% of Latinas work in service jobs, as opposed to one-fifth of white women, according to a 2019 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report. And service jobs, which have been decimated by the pandemic, are harder to do online.

Professional women who can work remotely — and must — are facing a new set of challenges, too.

Lydia Elle, an operations research analyst in the space industry, and a single mom of a 10-year-old, was pleasantly surprised by at least one aspect of her new life: the disappearance of the stress from racing from the office to get her daughter. Now she can finish her work outside the confines of her once-limited workday.

"My productivity is good if not better because I've been able to eliminate a major responsibility," she said. "I can give surge support because I don't have to worry about picking up my kid late. I can roll over and turn on my laptop and do some e-mails in it in a different mental space, because I know that she's OK."

But, as supportive as her company is of her situation, she's concerned about what happens as her co-workers start returning to the office and she's still at home. Will her path to advancement become increasingly difficult to walk when she's out of sight, and possibly out of mind? Promotion isn't just about excelling at tasks; it's about relationships.

"I have to figure out how to show that I am present in a way that my counterparts who may have decided to go back may not have to think about," she said.

Elle is right to be thinking about this, experts say. The economic effects of the pandemic will be deep and long-lasting. The term used by Michael Madowitz, an economist at the progressive Center for American Progress is "unemployment scarring."

"You're going to see long-term effects on their earnings and earnings growth over time," Madowitz said of women leaving the workforce. Women don't just lose their monthly income. "You end up lowering your retirement benefits and your Social Security benefits," Madowitz said. "It ends up costing a lot more than your salary."

Recovery should factor in child care

Any focus on economic recovery needs to center on women, with child care folded into job-creation plans, and government and employers alike trying to solve these problems. Mason suggests creating a national child care infrastructure, "where we treat child care as a public good rather than a private obligation," she said.

"We need to make sure that decision makers are keeping (our experiences) at the forefront," Elle said. "What is hopefully going to come out of this pandemic moment is that we realize we need to support the whole person, not just the employee."

For now, Dutton, the single mom in Kansas, has managed to make some improvements. She got a job as a peer advocate with Family Promise, a nationwide nonprofit that helps homeless families, in August. The advocacy group had assisted her in the past with stabilizing housing, and classes in cooking, budgeting and credit scores. Now, she processes housing applications and tries to connect others with services to help them with rent.

"I'm able to stay home and work some hours and have my kids here with this whole remote learning," she said. And even though the pandemic, and the government's anemic response to it, has forced her to put her education on hold, she said, "I feel like I got lucky."

Lisa Selin Davis is the author of "Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different."

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