Working mothers are paying a career penalty during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s expected to get worse

By Arianne Cohen

As any mother can tell you, the coronavirus pandemic has been a brutal slog of work and childcare and housekeeping. Despite early hopes of a great reckoning in gender equity, none has emerged: From February to April, mothers of young children reduced their work hours 4-5 times as much as fathers, growing the gender gap in work hours by 20-50%.

These figures come from a fresh study out of three universities (Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Melbourne, and the University of North Texas), which analyzed data from the U.S. Current Population Survey of 60,000 households. Researchers traced changes in work hours among heterosexual married parents. “Our findings indicate mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence,” says coauthor Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology.

Fathers’ work hours have not changed. In the case of newly remote workers, their hours have not dipped below 40 hours per week.

The researchers warn that women’s lessened work hours likely heralds the beginning of a steep decline: Though mothers have so far cut just two hours per week (more for mothers of young children), those hours grow the already wide gap between mothers’ and fathers’ working hours. This means that upcoming promotions and raises are likely to benefit fathers who continued working full hours (not to mention nonparents). And all this is happening as many mothers have held onto their jobs due to telecommuting, an option that may disappear as businesses reopen.

“Scaling back work is part of a downward spiral that often leads to labor force exits—especially in cases where employers are inflexible with schedules or penalize employees unable to meet work expectations in the face of growing care demands,” the authors write. “We are also concerned that many employers will be looking for ways to save money, and it may be at the expense of mothers who have already weakened their labor market attachment.”

What to do? Collins says that employers and fathers can help in two ways:

    Managers need to offer flexibility to mothers wherever possible, to prevent long-term losses among female employees.

    Fathers should provide more hours of care for their children, “even if that means sacrificing paid work hours,” says Collins.

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