The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted not only the workforce, but the work-life balance of professionals everywhere. Widespread job and work hour loss coupled with uncertain availability of schools and daycares further burdened working parents with unprecedented changes.
Jamie J. Ladge, professor of management and organizational development at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business, is all too familiar with the many hats that working parents wear. She examines the psychological and career implications of employed parents, workplace diversity, and work-life identity integration in her research, further exploring work and life transitions for working mothers in her co-authored book Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood.
“A lot of these things are parallel to my own life,” says Ladge, who is mother to three teenage sons. “I've been navigating all of the work and family challenges that everybody is studying, so it's highly relevant personally to me, as much as it is professionally.”
Women bear the brunt of work-life shocks
Ladge is among an interdisciplinary group of researchers that surveyed a panel of working parents during the summer of 2020 while studying the effects of infrastructure shocks due to COVID-19, including economic and policy concerns, mental health impacts, and work and family issues. Their work culminates in a recent Harvard Business Review paper, Childcare Is a Business Issue.
Due to this pandemic-induced economic downturn, women are dropping out of the workforce at a disproportionate rate, hence what is being called the “shecession.” Many of the jobs hit hardest by the pandemic were held in predominantly-female industries, but the real trigger for many women exiting the workforce is child care.
Nearly 20 percent of working parents surveyed reported job or work hour loss solely due to child care, and almost twice as many of those respondents were women. In comparison to their male counterparts, women have also seen significant increases in time spent each week on schoolwork, playing with their children, cooking, and cleaning. In fact, of the factors affecting how caregiving responsibilities are split between co-parents, the third most common was whichever person is better at taking care of kids.
“It just screams that there are these gender expectations; that women's jobs are to take care of children and men's jobs are to go to work,” Ladge says. “Those are so outdated, or they are seemingly outdated, but yet they're so ingrained in our heads.”
Paving the way to recovery
Ladge wants businesses to know that child care is not a family issue—it is an infrastructural business issue.
“The pandemic just drew massive attention to this idea that we cannot live without a system of secure child care,” says Ladge. “We don't think of child care as infrastructure like the way we think of our roads and bridges as infrastructure, but I mean if you don't have child care, you can't go to work.”
Parents with children under the age of 14 comprise almost a third of the U.S. workforce, and for many of them, child care is an essential service. Despite this, many companies meet their workers with inadequate work-family policies, which can include paid leave, workplace flexibility, and on-site or subsidized caregiving.
The gaps in child care accommodations, which continue to force women out of their jobs, threaten to reverse decades of progress on women working. Those who leave the workforce to take care of their children often have trouble reentering, and the difficulty rises the longer they are away. To aid a resilient economic recovery, child care infrastructure is crucial.
Along with these provisions, employers must foster a supportive work culture that doesn't make employees feel guilty for taking advantage of said policies, Ladge says. Before the pandemic, the concept of workplace flexibility was stigmatized as something that only working mothers need. Ladge is hopeful that with the spotlight COVID-19 has shed on vulnerabilities in workplace infrastructure, companies will realize the fundamental value of flexibility and support—for both employees and employers.
“When you have policies in place to allow people to work flexible arrangements or to take leave, or to be able to reduce their hours to some extent, they will be more committed,” she says.