The ‘silver side of the pandemic’ for working mothers

The proportion of American women working for pay is at an all-time high. According to a recent analysis, this increase was led by an unexpected group: mothers of children under 5 years old.

Although mothers in this group have historically worked less than other women, their gains since the pandemic have been the largest. The analysis, carried out by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project and based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, identifies a major reason: the new ability of some mothers, particularly those who are married and have college degrees, to work remotely.

“What’s happening to married, educated women with young children is crazy,” said Lauren Bauer, a Brookings scholar and author, with Sarah Yu Wang, of the analysis. “These are women who consider themselves workers. They were on an upward trend before the pandemic, they bounced back and kept going. »

Julia Keintz took a job as an analytics manager at Zillow two years ago, when her children were 6 months and 11 years old. One of the reasons she wanted the job, she said, was that since the pandemic, Zillow has allowed employees to live wherever they want and work flexible hours.

She lives outside San Francisco, where Zillow has an office, but she rarely goes there. When her youngest was a baby, she could avoid lugging breast milk pumping supplies to and from work. She saves 90 minutes a day by avoiding travel. She might treat her older child to an after-school snack and drive him to sports practices and bar mitzvah preparations.

In her previous jobs, she said, she felt she had to figure out how to balance work and parenting herself, and that she might have to quit if she couldn’t. “It always seemed like a secret to me, like I was an exception,” Ms. Keintz said. “Zillow is the first company I’ve worked for where flexibility is an outwardly stated thing.”

The share of women working in the United States increased rapidly starting in the 1970s, with the feminist movement. For those aged 25 to 54, it topped 77 percent in the 1990s, when changes to welfare and the earned income tax credit pushed more women into work. But then it stopped, although it continued to increase in peer countries. Economists have attributed this to the lack of family-friendly policies in the United States, such as paid leave and subsidized child care. Additionally, employers increasingly expect 24-hour availability, which poses a challenge when children stay at home.

Labor force participation of all working-age adults, including mothers, increased in late 2019, just before the pandemic, when a combination of a very low unemployment rate and some state and local policies made it easier to find a job.

Today, 77.7 percent of women ages 25 to 54 are employed, a new record and proof that pandemic closures of schools and daycares have failed to erase decades of progress in matters of women’s employment. A greater proportion of mothers of preschool and school-age children are working today than before the pandemic.

Several factors have brought more women into the workforce in recent months. There have been temporary federal expansions of paid leave and child care subsidies during the pandemic, and some states and cities have made similar benefits permanent. The tightening labor market likely contributed, making jobs more attractive, as did inflation, making higher income more essential. And the cultural shifts that began before the pandemic have continued: women are more educated, have children later, and invest more of their time and identity in a career.

Yet one particularly influential change for parents, researchers say, has been remote work for people with office jobs and greater flexibility in when and where work is done. These pandemic-driven changes also benefit other groups, like people with disabilities, who are also working at record levels.

Becca Cosani took a new job as a health insurance consultant when her oldest daughter, Emilia, now 3, was a baby. She called the decision “scary” because of the constant travel that consulting requires, with a baby and a husband whose engine rebuilding business cannot be run from home.

“Women work more because they have to,” she said. “Our daycare costs more than our mortgage. I have a high income and am looking for coupons for my groceries.

Then the pandemic hit and the trips never happened because clients were working remotely and decided it was more efficient. She works from her home office in Missouri City, Texas.

During breaks, she does laundry or goes shopping. “This time is gifted to me as time I can spend with my kids when they are home,” she said of activities like riding their bike or looking for pecans in their backyard tree. If one of them has an ear infection or takes ballet class after school, she might run away.

She takes Emilia and Isabel, 1 year old, home every day after nursery school. They take it slowly, stopping to look at the leaves, something she says wouldn’t have been possible if she was commuting or traveling: “It’s just the joy of my life to be able to do that.”

The analysis does not include fathers, but other data suggests that those who can work from home are also spending more time being parents than before the pandemic and valuing flexibility more than before.

“The ‘new normal at work’ is at work here,” said Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist who won the Nobel Prize this month for her research on women’s employment. Some women who would have stopped working when their children were young did not do so, she noted: “This is the great positive side of the pandemic. »

Mothers of babies and young children, an age group that requires significant hands-on care, have benefited the most from remote work, according to the Hamilton Project analysis. Among mothers of children under 5 with tertiary education, 80.3 percent work, up from a previous high of 77.4 percent at the end of 2019. Nearly half of them said in surveys federal government that they worked from home at least once a week, which is much higher. a larger share than any other group.

Less-educated women and those who are Hispanic or single are more likely to work in jobs that cannot be done remotely, such as retail clerks or health care aides. Although this group has largely returned to work, they are still working below the rate they were before the pandemic: among mothers of young children and a high school diploma or less, 54.4 percent are working, compared to 56.1 percent at the end of 2019.

These workers are also the least likely to have employers who offer other types of family benefits or a spouse with flexible schedules. According to the researchers, government policies would be necessary to reach all workers.

“Women who can’t work remotely require special attention,” said Misty Heggeness, an economist at the University of Kansas. “If anything positive can come from our awareness and understanding of this, it’s how can we develop better social policies and better social and structural supports. »

Charts by Francesca Paris.

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