Women’s Careers Are Being Hit Hard by the Pandemic — But It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way…and Isn’t in My Family
Mothers are the ‘Shock Absorbers’ of Our Society, The New York Times reports, one of a series of recent stories about how working women are bearing the brunt of childcare responsibilities in the era of COVID and virtual-schooling.
Many of these stories cite McKinsey’s recent Women in the Workplace study, which found:
- 25% of working women are “contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce,”
- While women are 47% of the U.S. labor force, they accounted for 54% of initial coronavirus-related job losses and still make up 49% of them
- Among working mothers in dual-career couples, 40% say they spend an additional three or more hours a day on child care and home responsibilities than pre-Covid, while 27% of fathers said the same. “More than half of mothers say they are responsible for either all or most of the work at home,” as The WSJ reported.
More recent reports find similar — and staggering — evidence of women’s careers being shut down or severely curtailed in the COVID era. “Women have been losing jobs at a rate far higher than that of men throughout this recession,” Bloomberg reports. “And it might get worse.”
Can’t argue with these findings, but I can tell you it doesn’t have to be this way…and it isn’t in my home.
After a long career in financial media, I’m currently focusing my attention on managing the homefront and the kids. It’s sort of a Mr. Mom-Mrs. Doubtfire situation, sans the makeup.
This wasn’t a decision that came easily or was made lightly. In February 2020, I started a new job at Seeking Alpha with a mandate to build out an editorial operation in NYC. Then COVID hit. Seeking Alpha has always been a WFH organization so it was a big deal for them to plan the expansion — and a relatively easy decision to unwind it. Over the summer we tried to reconfigure my role but it was clear to me it wasn’t going to happen. And when my role was officially eliminated, my wife and I started talking about me taking on primary childcare responsibilities.
I wish David, Eli and the SA team continued success. I’m still hosting The Alpha Trader podcast for them and invite you to tune in and subscribe (available via iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, et al!) — assuming you haven’t already. In addition to the podcast, I’m doing other ‘project work’ but am not currently looking for a new full-time role.
My wife’s coaching practice is going very well so we can rely on her income now that she’s focusing full-time on her career. For the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic we were splitting childcare duties while both trying to work — a difficult proposition, for sure. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to make this choice, and I realize it’s not an option for most. Relatively few American families can rely on any individual’s income, male or female…but we made the tough decision to sell our home this summer. Our calculation — financial and psychological — is that we can make this work by lowering costs and reducing our footprint.
Rethinking Gender-based Roles in the Era of Virtual Learning
Still, I wonder how much of the macro ‘women are leaving work’ trend is based on gender stereotypes vs. which partner is actually best positioned to be the primary breadwinner. The 2011 book Spousonomics by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson seems acutely relevant in this moment. (Caveat: Yes, this only applies to heterosexual relationships where one income can support the family in question — two big “ifs”.)
Just prior to the COVID outbreak, Pew Research released a study which found women’s career prospects were on the upswing in the modern economy relative to men’s, in part because of employers’ desire to find workers with better social skills, like negotiation and persuasion.
“Presently, women are in the majority in jobs that draw most heavily on either social or fundamental skills — such as legal, teaching and counseling occupations — accounting for 52% of employment in these jobs in 2018 (up from roughly 40% in 1980). The share of women has also risen greatly among those working in occupations that rely most on analytical skills — such as accounting and dentistry — from 27% in 1980 to 42% in 2018,” according to Pew.
One would think these “soft” skills are in even higher demand in the new ‘work from home’ reality. And with more firms saying employees have the option of working remotely, I wonder if more families will make similar choices as ours. Of course, this will only work if more dads are going to step up on the homefront…and more women are going to step back and cede control of childrearing.
The reality is my wife was wary about me taking over childcare and remote learning responsibilities. She knew I was capable but had to reconcile with the fact that:
a) She would be missing out on quality time with the kids.
b) I wouldn’t do things the same way as her (read: Typically not as well and with less organization) and that, yes, I might encourage the kids to play in the mud or jump off small buildings in a single bound.
There’s No Such Thing as ‘Women’s Work’ — Just Work That Needs to Get Done
I’ve also had to check my ego and rethink my identity, which for too long was very wrapped up my title at work and role as “breadwinner” at home. This can be a big challenge for many men, particularly those raised in “traditional households” and of a certain age. There’s still a certain stigma in some circles and I hope more couples are having frank discussions about what needs to be done, and that more men will discuss their fears (and desires) when it comes to childcare.
Personally, I have always prided myself on being an “active” father and am no stranger to cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, grocery shopping and the other necessities of managing a home. Still, this is the first time I’ve had primary responsibility for those duties and it’s definitely a lot to manage.
I often think to myself How did our mothers do it? and then realize two very important truths:
- Our mothers never had the kids home during a pandemic
- My mother didn’t do it. My mother worked full time starting when I was in third grade and wasn’t much of a homemaker before then. My father certainly helped around the house, especially with cooking/grocery shopping. He taught me that it’s good to be able to do these things for yourself vs. having to be reliant on someone else, as many of my friends discovered when they left home. (True story: In college I had to teach my roommates how to make pasta and scrambled eggs.)
My upbringing taught me that housework and child-rearing isn’t “women’s work,” which certainly has helped me both before and during COVID. I hope my sons — and my daughter — learn the same lesson. And I hope that more fathers will step up and step into the role of primary caregiver, more especially if it makes economic sense for your household.