The assumption made by U.S. CEOs, CIOs, policy makers, and politicians is that back-to-work and back-to-school orders exist in a vacuum — or rather in 1953. The ‘all clear’ to go back to work and school on modified or hybrid models assumes there is a caretaker at home at all times, flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of the business and now health environments.
Remember when IBM transferred employees every two years?
But such assumptions are fraught with outdated assumptions in a reality that has long passed. Let’s start with the obvious: As of December 2020, women are now the majority of the workforce in America, holding 50.04 percent of American jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs in healthcare, education, and retail, in particular, are predominantly held by women: Nearly 80 percent of healthcare workers are women.
Re-opening the economy and businesses will require us to find a way to care for the children first. And therein lies the irony. Schools in the U.S. are more than a place for education; it is also a place for childcare. Without schools being reopened safely, many families simply lack an affordable alternative for childcare.
The challenges are compounded for households with single parents. According to Pew Research, U.S. has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households, with almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 living with one parent and no other adults. And of all the single-parent families in our country, single mothers take up the majority, with nearly 30 percent of their families living under the poverty line, compared with 62 percent of families with married parents. Families where the father is the sole breadwinner, make up only about a quarter of families (27 percent) with children under 18.
With few, if any, affordable childcare options available, and with many of these jobs (predominantly held by women) being deemed essential, women are increasingly being asked to choose between their family and their work; their family and the ability to put food on the table. And that is not the entire story: women in many of these jobs are underpaid because our society has traditionally undervalued care or “pink collar” work.
Even for those who are lucky enough to work from home, working remotely and parenting present yet another set of challenges, particularly for working mothers. Before the pandemic, women already spent more time than men on caregiving and unpaid domestic work – to the tune of seven extra years, according to Melinda Gates. And if data from the past few months is of any indication, the balance appears to be increasingly lopsided. According to preliminary data, women researchers are publishing less since the pandemic hit and when nations worldwide adopted social isolation measures. In one analysis, “first authorship among women declined 23 percent compared to papers published in the same journals last year.”
For working parents with younger children, the challenges are even more daunting. Imagine trying to tend to little kids, who are socially isolated from their circle of little friends and struggling to comprehend the changing world around them, coupled with navigating uncharted waters of remote learning — on top of the new normal of remote work, all under an environment of increased stress in the middle of a pandemic.
Make no mistake. The ability to work from home is a privilege unavailable to many. Look no further than the decision by Florida State University that bans childcare during remote work, a decision that is not only biased and outdated, but one that ignores the reality of parenting during COVID-19. Do working mothers really have a choice, when any semblance of balance is shredded by working from home with little to no childcare and support?
And for women and families of colour, all of these variables are on top of the everyday stress of racism that they already have to deal with. In a recent Essence study, 52 percent of Black women faced or anticipated a negative financial impact from the pandemic. 70 percent of Black women business owners reported their businesses were adversely affected — from no or low sales to supply chain disruptions. Over 60 percent reported that the pandemic affected their emotional well-being and mental health. And in New York City alone, people of color make up 75 percent of essential workers. Where are the policies that protect and support them in times of crisis?
How did we, as a society, get it so wrong?
We can’t help but wonder – if our policy makers were more diverse, and included voices from more working mothers and single parents — would the outcome be different? Would more urgent actions be taken — instead of the haphazard chaos that we have now? Is it really realistic to ask for businesses to re-open and return to normal (whatever normal is), while schools are still closed and childcare is unaffordable – or simply unavailable as many childcare facilities are closed for good? And why is the burden often left on the parents to make decisions on childcare and education? Why should mothers be forced to make the choice between a paycheck and taking care of her children?
Where is the leadership?
As a business, if you do truly care about equality and inclusion of women in the workforce, your policies must reflect that — at every level, for every position. When it comes to “return to work” policies, consider the implications on women and working parents; is there accredited childcare available close to their homes and offices? Do you provide a child care subsidy? What about sick leave and family care leave? Women are predominantly the caretakers of their parents and loved ones; flexible work arrangements must take that into account. Merits need to be given according to the quality of work being performed, not punching in/out time.
The past few months reinforce how closely linked our work and personal spheres are — and how much more we have to go to advance gender equity. The agony faced by many working parents, especially single parents and those from lower income families, show us that public policies are out of sync with reality. It is a perfect storm of race, gender, and social class.
May this be our moment of reckoning.
Theo Lau, is the Founder of Unconventional Ventures and Stessa Cohan, is a Consultant, Strategist and Adviser at PivotAssets