Has the COVID-19 pandemic finally highlighted an issue that has been adversely affecting women in the workplace for decades? The answer is yes, as you’ll see below.
The vaccine rollout is in full force and the return to “normalcy” is in sight—for at least a portion of the population. Unfortunately, many people, disproportionately women, have taken a hit on their career advancements as working mothers are performing more child care responsibilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made many realize that work-life balance is more difficult than it seems on paper. Women now have to juggle two full-time jobs: mother and working mother. Women have borne more of the burden associated with child care and remote learning.
The pandemic has not increased the number of hours in a day. Therefore, in order to assume their current and new pandemic caretaking responsibilities, women are forced to take on fewer clients, reduce their work hours, turn down key assignments, and even leave the labor force altogether. Additionally, sometimes employers inaccurately assume women cannot take on challenging assignments without asking them if they can. This certainly does not aid in career advancement.
Over the past few months, I have spoken with women and men in New Hampshire to ask if the pandemic was a catalyst for impeding gender equality in the workplace and how the pandemic has affected their households and workplace. Most of the individuals stated that the reality of the situation was that one parent had to stay home or work less due to the cost of child care in New Hampshire and the safety risks associated with putting their child in day care. After a cost-benefit analysis discussion between partners, the mother often ended up being the individual that took on the child care responsibilities because, among other reasons, she had a lower salary, had a more flexible schedule, or primarily took on this role already. Male counterparts have also noticed an impact on their careers as working fathers.
I spoke with a clinical social worker in New Hampshire, Jennifer Wolfe-Hagstrom, who became a parent in May 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Jennifer had a thriving practice helping adolescents and young adults who, among other things, are healing from trauma, exploring their identity, and looking for help with self-care and self-love. Her practice included in-person animal-assisted therapy. She had to greatly reduce her workload, switch to telehealth, and is unsure of when she will be able to take on new clients. Her income was greatly reduced as a result. This was disheartening to her as one of the largest mental health crises of her career is occurring due to the pandemic.
Another working mother expressed how the day care costs are “astronomical” in New Hampshire. She had to greatly reduce her practice of law to only a few hours in the evenings as her full-time day job is taking care of her children, who are 3, 6, and 8 years old, as well as managing remote learning. The pandemic forced her to make choices about “which ball to drop.” She gave serious thought to taking a leave of absence or retiring. Another attorney mentioned that her children have made “more than one appearance” on her Zoom meetings.
This is not only an issue in New Hampshire. A Washington Post article—titled, “Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation”—pointed out that “[o]ne out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care—twice the rate among men.” CNN also ran the headline, “Working mothers are quitting to take care of their kids, and the US job market may never be the same.”
What can we do? In order to make a change, the community as a whole will need to have a mindset shift. New Hampshire will need to take immediate and long-term action to fix the child care infrastructure, including making it more affordable for young professionals. New Hampshire employers will need to establish more progressive work-family policies as well as create a culture that allows men to leave work early, move appointments, and take paternity leave in order to handle their share of the caretaking responsibilities. Implementation of these actions will promote economic growth and advance gender equity.
There is workplace progress worth mentioning. Companies now see the importance of allowing their employees to have flexibility in their hours and work schedule as well as work from home. Companies are also embracing new technology to enhance flexibility. Many individuals also commented on the “collaborative approach” other employees and employers are taking to assist in work-life balance.
Despite this progress, we still have a long road ahead of us. Hopefully, our law firms and Bar members will rise to address this challenge.