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What Women Have Lost (and Gained) in the Last Three Years
Did the pandemic leave a lasting impact on caregivers?
It was almost exactly three years ago when I took my kids to the park on a sunny Saturday, anticipating the world would never be the same. It felt surreal to frolic on a picnic blanket. I suspected “this coronavirus” would upend our lives, but I had no idea just how frightening the next few months would be, or how the pandemic’s impact would stretch across the next few exhausting, demoralizing years.
In a diary I kept sporadically throughout the pandemic, I wrote of how those days in March reminded me of September 11, 2001: “I remember looking up at the blue sky, and thinking how odd to have such beautiful weather when the world is falling apart.”
My daughter on that disorienting day.
I was a deputy editor at Working Mother, so I began covering the pandemic’s impact on caregivers in the workplace. Like many, I feared women’s progress would be permanently derailed, as moms (and, yes, it was mostly moms) quit their jobs to care for children who could no longer go to child care centers or schools. I worried women would take on more of the burden at home, losing out on promotions and pay raises at work. I worried it would lead to fewer women leaders and widen the pay gap between women and men.
The good news is that women persevered, as we always do. It doesn’t seem like the pandemic’s impact has been as catastrophic as many of us feared—but we have scars to show for our struggles.
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Where, exactly, do women and caregivers stand, three years later? Let’s take a look:
The good: Women lost 12 million jobs during the pandemic, and were slower to rejoin the labor force than men. Now, women have gained more jobs than men for five straight months, and our labor force participation has essentially rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, research suggests that college-educated women (who had greater access to remote work) weren’t any more likely to quit working than college-educated men.
The bad: The recovery hasn’t been equal. There are fewer women without college degrees at work today than in February 2020.
The good: There are more women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before. There are a record number of women in Congress. Women’s entrepreneurship is on the rise, with women starting 49% of new businesses in 2021, up from 28% in 2019, Axios reports.
The bad: A new report by IBM and Chief, a private network for executive women, reveals that the leadership pipeline is “hollowing out in the middle,” as the percentage of women in senior vice president and vice president roles has dropped since 2019.
The good: The wage gap hasn’t widened. New pay transparency laws in states like California, Rhode Island and Washington should make it easier for employees to negotiate a fair salary.
The bad: The wage gap hasn’t budged in nearly two decades. Women make 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. For Black women, it’s 65 cents. For Latina women, it’s 60 cents. Motherhood is still the main driver of the pay gap.
The good: The pandemic illustrated what a crucial role caregivers play in supporting our society—and what little support they receive. To help their caregiving employees, many companies rolled out better benefits, including more back-up child care and higher child care subsidies.
The bad: Parents are still missing work due to child care disruptions. The child care industry hasn’t fully recovered from covid-related closures and centers are struggling to hire workers in a hot labor market. The sector added 4,000 jobs last month, but is still about 60,000 jobs below its February 2020 level, according to The New York Times. Child care costs have continued to increase, pushing more moms out of the workforce.
The good: The pandemic prompted many Americans to reevaluate their addiction to work, kicking off a Great Resignation and inspiring many workers—and especially dads—to scale back on the job. It permanently changed the way we work: Our Modern Workplace Report found that 66% of caregiving employees work from home more frequently now, and 58% have more flexibility on their hours now. Survey after survey shows that “work-life balance” is a top priority for job seekers, and the tight labor market has forced employers to find ways to provide it.
The bad: Some major employers, including Starbucks, Twitter and auditing firm KPMG, are backtracking on flexible work, the BBC reports.
The good: If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, moms and caregivers have been forged into steel blades.
The bad: It’s probably not true. What doesn’t kill you tends to chip away at your mental and physical health. Moms and caregivers may have retained our jobs throughout our pandemic, but juggling work with child care did a number on our mental health. A national poll published in May 2022 found that caregivers suffer from anxiety and depression at much higher rates than non-caregivers. More than one-third (36%) of caregivers said they suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Parents and caregivers also routinely report higher rates of chronic stress and burnout, which are often precursors to anxiety, depression and other chronic health conditions. A May 2022 report by researchers with Ohio State University found that 66% of working parents meet the criteria for parental burnout.
Some of this is tied to worry about our children: A new Pew Research report on parenting found that 40% of U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. It’s a valid fear, sadly, as rates of suicide, self-harm and sadness have skyrocketed among kids and teens in recent years.
Household Gender Equity
The good: Remote work enabled many dads to participate more at home. During the chaotic months when child care centers and schools were closed, dads did more hands-on chores and child care, chipping away at long-standing norms that have forced moms to take on more of these duties. A sizable share of those dads, one fifth, has continued to do more child care than before, and one quarter has continued to do more household work, according to an analysis reported by The New York Times.
The bad: Most fathers have reverted to their old division of labor.
All in all, working caregivers endured. We fiercely refused to give up on our ambitions, and we refused to settle for less. Many of us switched jobs in pursuit of better pay and flexibility. And we did it all while taking care of our kids and aging parents, while scrambling to find necessities, like formula and Tylenol. This dogged dedication had a cost, however: We are burned out and our mental health is suffering. Many of us are also more cynical than ever before. Partisan politics seemed to drive pandemic-era policies more than reasoned consideration. And Congress still hasn’t passed paid family leave or child care subsidies, which would make our lives substantially easier.
We learned that when it comes to survival, we can only count on ourselves.
Want real solutions for solving the child care crisis? Join this crucial conversation on March 23 by registering here:
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LOVE TO SEE IT
Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Norway are the best countries for working women, according to The Economist’s Glass Ceiling index. Countries where fathers take parental leave have smaller earnings gaps and higher employment rates among women. The bad news: The U.S. ranked No. 19.
HATE TO SEE IT
Women don’t apply to jobs with $100,000+ salaries as often as men. It could be because women are reluctant to apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified for a particular role, research shows. The good news: We’re more likely to get the job when we do apply. (So apply anyway!)