For months, gender and family experts have speculated on how the coronavirus might impact working parents: With schools shuttered and day cares largely closed across the country, how much will parents, and especially moms, have to scale back at work?
Even before there was any concrete data, experts said, the answer was obvious.
“I’m an economist, so I usually try not to say things without data,” Martha Gimbel, a manager of economic research at Schmidt Futures, said in an interview with The Lily in early May. “But I feel very comfortable going out on a limb and saying that this burden is going to fall on women. We just know it’s going to be women.”
Definitive evidence has now arrived: Moms have reduced their working hours four to five times more than fathers during he pandemic, according to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis, widening the gender gap in work hours by as much as 50 percent. This disparity will likely lead women to leave the workforce in droves, said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University who co-authored the study. It could also trigger mass layoffs for women, as companies have to make hard choices about which employees to keep in the middle of a recession.
The study looks at dual-income, heterosexual couples where both parents work in occupations where they are able to telecommute, mostly white-collar jobs that require higher levels of education, according to Collins. She co-authored the study with Liana Christin Landivar at the Maryland Population Research Center, Leah Ruppanner at the University of Melbourne and William Scarborough at the University of North Texas.
I spoke with Collins about why this study “spells disaster” for working moms — and what we can do to curb the current crisis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: So many people have been eagerly awaiting this study. Tell me exactly what you found.
Caitlyn Collins: We wanted to see what happened to parents’ work hours during this time when the pandemic spiked and child care and schools closed down. And our study showed that, yes, indeed, their hours did change. And by that I mean that mothers’ hours changed. Moms have reduced their working hours four or five times more than fathers. Women are working somewhere in the range of two hours less every week.
CK: Two hours a week — how significant is that number?
CC: That number sounds small when you say that out loud, right? But for folks who study this, these numbers are really, really dramatic. If you think about how this adds up over many weeks, months and even years, it has dramatic consequences for women’s labor force participation, for their promotions, for their earnings. All these little numbers add up in the minds of our co-workers and our supervisors in ways that matter. And it matters that fathers are continuing basically business as usual.
CK: How many hours less are fathers working?
CC: It’s statistically insignificant.
CK: How might this two-hour difference play out in the long-run? Six months, a year down the road?
CC: These two hours should be a red flag for all of us. It means that the work-family conflict that women are experiencing is substantial enough for them to dial back their work hours to meet these familial needs. Especially now that we’re seeing schools going virtual in the fall, those two hours may very well expand.
CK: What happens if they do expand?
CC: I think we’re going to see a lot of women quit their jobs, to be totally honest with you. Often what happens when women experience acute work-family conflict is they “opt out.” They quit their jobs because they can’t find a way to make it work. It will also not be surprising to me if we see massive layoffs for women.
We talk about this as a “downward spiral.” The U.S. economy follows an ideal worker model: There is an expectation that your employer will have your undivided devotion. And one way you demonstrate that devotion is by putting in all hours at any time of the day or night. When women reduce those hours, it signals a lack of commitment to their employers. That’s all happening as we’re in the middle of a very dramatic economic recession, with employers forced to make cuts. This really spells disaster when it comes to thinking about women’s roles more broadly.
CK: I’ve spoken to a lot of women who have quit their jobs, or have considered quitting, to take care of their kids during coronavirus. Most say they’ll go back when all this is over. Will that be difficult?
CC: We don’t have an economy where it’s easy for women to on-ramp back into paid work. Having to explain a hole in your resume is really difficult, and if the answer has anything to do with caring for your family … that’s pretty much the worst thing you can say to a potential employer.
CK: It’s super depressing. Any ideas on how we fix it?
CC: That’s the million dollar question, right? We know it has dramatic positive effects for workers, especially for women, when employers focus on the results from your workday rather than what kind of the butts-in-seats approach that so many employers still tend to have. All of us know you can sit at a desk for nine hours and get in three good hours of work.
CK: Of course the U.S. has pretty terrible parental leave policies. How are other governments helping parents during this time, in ways that we’re not?
CC: In so many other countries, parents have quite a lengthy set of parental leave days that can be used flexibly. Take Germany and Sweden. They offer parental leave, a chunk of days that can be used any time up until a child is 8-years-old. Imagine if in the U.S. right now, parents could say, “You know what, I’m going to take 30 days of parental leave, because my kid is at home and can’t go to summer camp like I planned.”
Parents in many other countries also have a right to reduce their working hours until their children are eight years old. So in Sweden, for example, you can reduce your schedule to a 75 percent schedule, working 30 hours a week, until your kid is 8. You can choose to do this at any time. That's your legal right. Can you imagine how many working parents right now would give anything to be able to keep their jobs, but reduce the number of hours they’re working? Aiming to get in six hours of work a day, instead of eight or nine?
CK: The degree to which working moms are cutting back on work — is that surprising to researchers? Or did you and your colleagues see this coming from the start of the pandemic?
CC: There had been some discussion of, “Well, maybe the pandemic will help parents and heterosexual couples to rethink or reimagine gender roles.” Perhaps when the labor of caregiving is made more visible, this will help kick-start the stalled gender revolution that scholars have been talking about for the past decade or so.
CK: What’s the stalled gender revolution?
CC: In the past several decades, we’ve seen monumental changes on the part of women who have joined the paid labor force in unprecedented numbers, moving into C-suite positions and outpacing men in rates of educational attainment. But men have not changed in equal measure. They now do a bit more around the house than they have in decades past. And certainly when you talk to them, they will tell you they do a lot more. But the change has not been equally dramatic on the part of men as it has been of women.
So some folks said, “Okay, the pandemic, here we are, there will be a monumental shift in the way we organize work and family life.” Perhaps now is a time that men will start changing their behaviors when it comes to navigating paid work and caregiving and housework. And so that became the empirical question: Is there a silver lining to the pandemic? Are men reducing their work hours in the same way that women are to meet the caregiving demands of their families?
CK: And they haven’t.
CC: They haven’t. We have seen men doing more child care — though, notably, not more housework. But that has not affected their working hours, as it has for women.
CK: When I’ve written about this topic in the past, some have criticized the way the issue is framed, saying we shouldn’t talk about this as a “disaster” for moms, but for all working parents. What are your thoughts on that?
CC: Of course dads matter. But this is about moms because moms bear the brunt of the disparities.
I would love for this to be an issue that affects all moms and dads equally. That would be great. And as soon as fathers are participating equally, we can talk about how this would negatively impact men as well as women. But it’s not negatively impacting men in the same way because they’re not caring for the domestic sphere in the same way that women are.