The first time in U.S. history that women outnumbered men in the workforce was the during the Great Recession in 2010, when layoffs hit male workers first. The second time it happened was the year before the pandemic. In December 2019, women worked 50.04 percent of payroll jobs, according to Labor Department data.
A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic took an almost immediate toll on women’s employment. Particularly impacted by the economic downturn were working mothers. Working mothers do “double shifts” – a full day at their job followed by hours taking care of children and household labor. Due to the pandemic, the support that made work outside the home for many women possible fell away: school, after-school programs, and daycare.
Data analyzed from the US Current Population Survey evaluated changes in dual-household work hours between February 2020 through April 2020. Data showed that mothers with young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. As a result, the gender gap in work hours increased from 20 to 50 percent. A 2020 Women in the Workplace Report by Leanin.org and McKinsey and Company found that mothers were doing twice as much as fathers at home during the pandemic.
As a result, an already-existing, well-researched, stereotype was exacerbated -- “the motherhood penalty.” It is based on a bias that mothers are less committed or competent, based on a gendered expectation that they prioritize family over paid work. As a result, they get paid less and are passed over in hiring and promotion decisions. Further, they were twice as likely as fathers to worry that their job performance was being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities.
Marianne Cooper, who co-authored the 2020 Workplace Report, explained that signaling one’s motherhood status activates bias, invoking the motherhood penalty. Even before the pandemic, mothers, particularly those in the service industry, would minimize or conceal their family responsibilities from their employers. However, when the pandemic closed schools and daycare, there was no room for women to separate “work” and “mother.” In fact, one in three mothers surveyed in the Women in Workplace report considered downshifting her career to a less demanding job or leaving the workplace altogether.
By September 2020, 865,000 women had left the workforce. In December 2020, women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs lost. As of February 2021, three million women workers had left the workforce due to the pandemic. COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the gender inequities that still exist - the gender pay gap, lack of childcare, and inflexible work hours. I hope, as a working mother, that we take this as a lesson and use it to disrupt the dangerous narrative that women are only valuable as workers until they need to be a parent. After all, Mother’s Day is not just one day a year.
Article contributed by Santa Rosa applicants' attorney Laura Rosenthal, Esq., CAAA Board Member and Women's Caucus Chair