What Do Mothers Need?
This Sunday is Mother’s Day. Instead of flowers and chocolates, consider this...
We are at the beginning of the COVID-19 reopening marathon. Are we doing all we can to support and advocate for our mothers as they run this “race”? Can we help push away obstacles that are preventing our moms from crossing the finish line?
On this Mother’s Day, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado Women’s College is challenging us to find new ways to support our mothers and lean into the hard work of shifting home and workplace norms and behavior to make spaces where they can thrive. After all, 41 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, earning at least half of their total household income. Nearly a quarter of families are children living with a single mother.
Things are tough for working women right now. Women are over-represented among the essential workers who are risking their health, and even their lives, to support those who are able to stay at home. Personal protective equipment, when available, is designed for a male body and leaves many women and their families vulnerable. Infection means missed work, and often a missed paycheck. Essential workers are facing unimaginable trade-offs between food and housing and their personal health and the health of their families.
Women are also over-represented in the sectors of the economy that are being crushed by social distancing policies. In prior recessionary periods, it was men’s employment that was negatively affected. Today, women who work in sectors of our economy like leisure and hospitality are hit the hardest with furloughs and layoffs.
Stay-at-home orders have brought the workplace into the home. According to a survey conducted by MIT researchers, in the first week of April nearly half the workforce that had been employed four weeks earlier was working from home. And they were working three more hours per a day for their job than they did before city and state-wide lockdowns. With school and day-cares closed, many parents are struggling to do it all.
Despite the chaos of this moment, working from home has its supporters. A new study by IBM found that 54% of employees would prefer to work remotely after the pandemic subsides. Advocates for telework point to Improved efficiency, more opportunities for collaboration and connection, higher company morale, and better life balance. Some companies have already indicated that they will be making working from home more permanent.
But before we jump headfirst into this new reality, let’s take a closer look. How are working Moms doing? The data emerging from this grand experiment of working remotely suggest that without some radical thinking, we will reinforce and perhaps exacerbate structural inequities.
First, not all women are in a position to work from home. Second, women continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of the unpaid work at home even as we see an uptick in partners splitting household responsibilities equally. Homeschooling, the new pandemic parenting chore is also disproportionately women’s work, although father’s don’t necessarily see it that way. Today’s New York Times reports that nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling, 3 percent of women agree.
The struggle to do it all in this moment when traditional supports are absent is taking its toll on women. Women are experiencing greater amounts of stress than men as the COVID-19 pandemic marches on. A Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted at the end of March found that the mental health of women has gotten worse since the pandemic for over half (57%) of mothers with children under the age of 18; 32% of fathers reported a similar decline in mental health - a 25% gender gap in stress that is growing larger over time.. Two weeks earlier men and women were feeling relatively similar levels of stress.
Although the data have yet to be systematically collected, there is reason to believe that motherhood penalties and fatherhood premiums may be making their way into the remote workspace. Stereotypes that women are less committed to work might become amplified in Zoom meetings when children pop in with an “urgent” request. Fathers, who have historically been seen as more committed to work when they have children might benefit when their children are on display. Catalyst executive Emily Zuckerman suggests that many women struggling with this new reality may be afraid to talk openly with supervisors for fear they will be perceived as not working or being productive enough.
There is much suffering right now and without a doubt, our first order of business is to see that the basic needs of our working moms are being met. This includes promoting policies that improve access to food, safe housing, healthcare, including reproductive health, liveable wages, paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and workplace safety.
Can we also use this moment of pandemic disruption to challenge the conventions of work and home that are holding people back and imagine a more equitable world. Can we design our road to recovery from a working woman’s point of view?
What if workplace safety started from the perspective of the harm to a woman’s body? What changes in PPE would we make? Alyson McGregor, co-founder and director for the Division of Sex and Gender in Emergency Medicine at Brown University, argues that in our male-centric medical system we know little about how our treatment of COVID-19 affects women’s unique biology or why COVID-19 affects men and women differently. If we did, we might see better outcomes.
What if we thought about restructuring work around the rhythms of home and school? At the 2014 Denver Gender Equity Summit, the mismatch between school schedules and work schedules (especially summer) was cited among the biggest challenges or concerns for women balancing family and work. Can we imagine a system that can better accommodate the needs of employers and parents? No one size will fit all workers, but any meaningful road to recovery must rethink how we organize our days and our work weeks.
What if we used this moment to hack the household to create more equity at home and work?
When men step up at home, they can create greater equity at work, according to new research published in the Harvard Business Review. For example, fathers who are equal partners at home may be more likely to use flexible work policies and normalize it for everyone. What if we opened the door for workers to have difficult conversations with supervisors about the competing stresses of work and home with the goal of finding solutions that might work for everyone?
A more equitable future, requires nothing short of a sea change in how we think about the intersection of work and family. Let’s honor our mothers by taking one small step to create better opportunities for all. How will you support the mothers in your life to run their best race?