Lakshmi Swamy, M.D., a pediatric ophthalmologist in Cary, North Carolina, made the difficult decision to keep her middle-schooler home this fall—a choice that means she’ll only be able to see a handful of patients one or two days a week. “There were not enough pediatric ophthalmologists to begin with in our area, and having to scale back a practice where I knew I was having an impact on the community is hard,” she said.
“And I’m not the only one,” she warns. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but I know that there are many physicians who have pulled themselves out of the workforce either partially or completely, during this pandemic. Family reasons and burnout are often cited. This is mind-blowing to me that our physician work pool is decreasing in the midst of a health crisis.”
Doctors aren’t the only workers who are scaling back their hours to take care of kids at home. Women scientists are publishing less research. Nearly half of manufacturers said childcare constraints made it difficult to recall furloughed workers or hire new ones in August, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tech workers without kids are reportedly simmering with resentment about their increased workload, a result they say is due in part to colleagues with kids taking paid time off.
Since the pandemic started, almost half of working parents (40 percent) have had to put the breaks on their career, either voluntarily reducing their hours (25 percent) or quitting entirely (15 percent), according to a FlexJobs survey of more than 2,500 parents with children 18 or younger living at home.
It’s the latest in a growing group of surveys and academic studies that confirm what experts warned would happen if COVID-19 continued to spread and daycares and schools remained closed: Many parents—and especially moms—have abandoned paid work. The consequences—for individual families, the economy and women’s advancement in the workforce—will be long-lasting.
“I almost feel like I’m this 1950s housewife.”
Moms were nearly twice as likely as dads to quit their jobs during the pandemic (at 17 percent versus 10 percent), according to the FlexJobs survey. Likely not coincidentally, working moms were also far more likely (at 63 percent) to say they were primarily responsible for childcare during the shutdown this spring than dads (at 43 percent).
“My husband and I have always been pretty much equal partners, and have had an equal division of labor in the household, but ever since this started I almost feel like I’m this 1950s housewife who’s also trying to work full time,” says Amy J. Bacharach, Ph.D., a policy researcher for the state of California who decided to utilize the paid leave provided under the FFCRA to work just two days a week this fall. Mom to a 6- and a 3-year-old whose school and daycare remain closed, she initially tried to work full time and take care of the kids simultaneously, while her husband works in a healthcare setting, but it was simply too overwhelming. “I’ve actually broken out in hives and eczema, which I’ve never had before in my life, because it’s so stressful.”
“Employers may penalize mothers for not being able to devote their full attention to work.”
With schools shuttered in much of the country, and daycare becoming increasingly out of reach for working families, it’s unlikely that parents will ramp back up their workload anytime soon. In fact, the FlexJobs survey provides a worrying anecdote that the decision might be permanent for some parents: Of those that quit entirely, 38 percent do not plan to rejoin the workforce.
Fewer workers spell trouble for the American economy, but the overall impact of the pandemic could be dire even for moms who have only dialed back their productivity by a bit. One recent survey found that over one-third of men with children at home (34 percent) say they’ve received a promotion while working remotely, while only 9 percent of women with children at home say the same.
“When selecting for raises or promotions, employers may penalize mothers for not being able to devote their full attention to work,” cautions William Scarborough, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He co-authored a recent study that showed that in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and have children under 13, mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers from February to April.
“All of this means that the disparities we’re observing now may likely translate to larger gender wage gaps, reduced women’s labor force participation and greater gender disparities in occupational advancement,” he explains.
A small silver lining is that “we also know from previous research what workplaces can do to reduce these negative consequences,” Dr. Scarborough says. “Workplaces need to institute accountability structures that track who is getting hired and who is getting raises and promotions. If mothers are receiving these at lower rates than prior to the pandemic, this suggests that they’re being unfairly penalized for the extra caregiving duties brought on by the pandemic. It also means that workplaces are promoting the wrong people, since many of the most effective workers, such as mothers, have been doing two jobs this whole time instead of one.”
With companies especially attuned to their hiring and promotion metrics right now, partly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s hope that some of the nation’s largest employers won’t discriminate against working moms. But how long their patience will last is an open question, especially because most working moms have no idea what they plan to do should closures drag on into 2021.
“I’m super grateful to have a supportive supervisor. She’s been very flexible, but that said, any researchers I’m working with outside of the agency have their own deadlines too,” Dr. Bacharach says. “If it’s the same as this, when everybody’s at home, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.”