In February of 2020, women held more than half of the nation's jobs. When the pandemic struck this past year and childcare facilities shut down, many women sacrificed their careers to care for their families. By September of 2020, four times as many women had left the workforce compared to men. As the pandemic threatens to set women's progress back a generation, working mothers are searching for new ways to adapt to remote work.
I recently had the opportunity to interview one of our UBWA Alumna Nicole Balkenbusch, and our UBWA advisor Lauren Kume about their experience navigating motherhood and their careers during the pandemic. Nicole currently works for Amazon as America's Customer Service Operations Finance Leader, and Lauren is a Career Advisor in the office of Career Management at Ohio State.
When schools and daycare centers shut down across the country in March, many working parents found themselves working full time at home while also managing their kids' online schooling. "In all honesty, my career took the backseat for a while," explained Lauren. Nicole also imparted that she had to reprioritize her expectations both in her career and her personal life. But as the months went by, they found ways to adapt. Nicole and her husband, who also work full-time from home, implemented a "stop-sign" system with their two young girls to indicate when it is okay for them to come into their offices. Red means do not enter, yellow means ask for permission, and green means enter. Nicole noted that this strategy helps with evenly distributing the number of interruptions between her and her husband. Lauren and her husband decided that he would support their 6-year-old with schoolwork and technology issues and help out more with kitchen duty to balance out their responsibilities. While it has been difficult, there is a potential silver lining to these new changes for working mothers.
First, the pandemic has proven that it is possible for employees to virtually attend meetings, work on projects, and collaborate while working from home. This realization is causing many companies to reimagine how they will use their offices in the future. Although it is unlikely that the office concept will disappear completely, the workplace's future is estimated to be a highly flexible hybrid model that will include both at-home and in-office work. A wider acceptance of working from home will open up opportunities for women who were previously constrained by childcare responsibilities.
Second, the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the struggles and challenges that working parents face. As Lauren put it, "The mental load of being a working mother is coming to light." Many working fathers have also experienced – maybe for the first time – a full day's worth of what it feels like to be home with their children. The hope is that this shared experience will make it easier for employers to empathize with working moms' demands. For example, Nicole immediately notified her finance team and coworkers when her daughter's daycare shut down in March. She communicated that she would do the best she could and would likely work reduced hours now that she had two young kids at home. Interestingly, Nicole noticed that her husband did not feel the same need to notify his employer that his children were at home. Nicole nailed it when she said, "In the future, my hope is that people (men and women) feel empowered to say what's really going on at home such that they can be their full selves at work."
While opportunities to work from home may become more commonplace in the post-pandemic world, we must remember that having a job where it is even possible to work from home is a privilege. The pandemic has shown us that essential people in our economy are also among the lowest-paid and most under-supported. For working mothers who are also essential workers, working from home is not an option. According to the New York Times, "One in three jobs held by women has been designated essential, […] and nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else." Likewise, we must center women in public policy discussions to ensure that we are providing them with adequate support. Possible policy solutions include providing comprehensive paid sick leave and preventing workplace discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities.
The current numbers of women in the workforce are alarming. The ratio of women working compared to men has not been this low since 1988, and 21st-century, women still shoulder most childcare and household responsibilities. Moving forward, my hope is that the pandemic has left us with a newfound sense of empathy for the challenges that working mothers face. If we are to preserve the progress that women have made in their careers – including their $7.6 trillion contribution to the United States GDP each year – we must demand more support from our employers, companies, and political leaders. A better, more equitable future is possible.