Pandemic may have devastating consequences on women’s long-term careers

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Amy Sterndale voluntarily cut her full-time hours in half for the summer and will reassess in August when she knows whether or not her kids will remain at home.  Courtesy Photo

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For working parents recovering from homeschooling their kids, summer camp closures were the second jab of a one-two punch.

Amy Sterndale of Durham, a full-time business advisor for the Small Business Development Center in the seacoast, has two children, ages 10 and 13. When summer arrived, she planned on packing towels and bathing suits into backpacks. But restrictive health and social distancing guidelines for camps due to COVID took that option off the table. 

Her husband takes some time off to manage the kids’ activities. That’s a big help, but not enough to balance confidential client meetings with family life. 

“I just couldn’t figure out how to juggle all of that and keep the kids safe and not on screens all summer,” she says. Sterndale voluntarily cut her full-time hours in half and is in a wait-and-see mode until late August as schools respond to the pandemic’s second wave, which may extend remote education into the winter.

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The dynamics of two-parent households have shifted dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years, with men and women contributing income more equally, says Beth Humberd, an assistant professor and expert in gender and the workplace at UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business.

Then the pandemic hit. Support structures like daycares, summer camps and afterschool programs collapsed, potentially dissolving the strides women made. 

“I’m afraid this is going to set us back decades in terms of the women’s movement,” says Paige Beauchemin of Nashua, a psychiatric nurse working for a healthcare app development company in Boston. A married mother of three small children, Beauchemin employs a college student to watch her kids for half a day, slipping in productive moments during their naps and after bedtime. 

Another curveball lands at her feet at the end of the month when the college student heads back to campus. This weekend, she’ll map out a childcare strategy for August, knowing the uncertainty of September is around the corner with no end is in sight. 

Women traditionally bear the responsibility for childcare, says sociologist Rebecca Glauber, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire. Early research suggests that fathers are sharing more equally in housework and childcare, but they have yet to catch up. 

American women spend on average 37 percent more time on unpaid household and care work than men, according to a recent analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). In addition, the Center for American Progress (CAP), an independent nonpartisan policy institute, found that on days both parents are working for pay, women are much more likely to clock hours on household chores.

Managing kids’ online learning also rests more on women’s shoulders. A New York Times poll conducted by the Morning Consult reported that among dual working parent households in lockdown, 80 percent of mothers said they invest more oversight on homeschooling than their children’s fathers.

“In times of crisis,” Humberd says, “we fall back on those inequitable patterns that maybe are still there.” Humberd points out she is referring to aggregates; plenty of families exemplify nontraditional role models.

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The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown spiked unemployment across socioeconomic classes, but unlike the last recession, more than half of lost jobs were held by women, according to IWPR’s analysis of U.S. Department of Labor statistics. The latest labor figures narrowed the unemployment gap somewhat from May’s two and a half point disparity, with 11.2 percent of women over age 20 unemployed, compared with 10.2 percent of men.

Glauber cites two reasons for the contrast. One is that most of the jobs lost are in service industries, where women hold the majority. The other is that with the responsibilities of housework, childcare and elder care, women may diminish efforts toward a paid job.

“Increased family burdens reduce productivity and those who are less productive may be the first to go as employers consider furloughs and layoffs,” she says. 

Unfortunately, when women are laid off or have to leave their jobs because of childcare issues, they can’t easily relaunch their careers. Some may never go back. CAP research demonstrates they may sacrifice up to three or four times their annual salary for each year out of the workforce.

Frazzled with daycare challenges, Beauchemin is considering reducing her full-time hours. “Because I can’t keep doing this and the kids are struggling,” she says. “They need extra attention right now and we’re giving them less.”

On the other hand, she loves her job. She’s weighing a new professional opportunity and the chance for a promotion. 

Sterndale is hoping to receive payments for her lost working hours through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which allows employers to provide employees with paid sick or expanded family and medical leave due to COVID-19-related reasons, including loss of childcare. The FFCRA is a temporary rule effective from April 2 through December 31, 2020.

“That helps me financially in the short term,” says Sterndale. Looking ahead, she can’t imagine a scenario where kids, teachers and the community are safe. If school buildings are closed, so are the swim, softball, soccer basketball, and theater programs that supervise her kids as the afternoons stretch into evenings. 

Too many women are taking on this childcare crisis as a personal responsibility, says Beauchemin. “We are all on our own piecemealing it together. That’s not fair to us.”

Humberd, who also has two young children, says this travesty pulls back the curtain on the interdependence of social systems: public health, employment, family, childcare, the economy. “[Yet] the way that we’re talking about these things is disconnected,” she says. For example, policymakers reopened gyms, restaurants, salons and other businesses without regard for the repercussions of non-viable daycare options for their essential employees who can’t work remotely.

Companies, if they haven’t already, are promoting internal policies that recognize the complexity of employees’ out-of-office lives, says Humberd. To uphold this corporate culture, managers must model policies such as six-week paternity leaves without the backlash of stigma.

“We have to continue the narratives that we were pushing before the pandemic,” says Humberd.

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