parental leave, maternity leave, women at work, women, COVID-19

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Why Are a Million Women Leaving the Workforce?

Economists are calling it a “she-session.” In the past year and change, more than 2.3 million women have departed the traditional workforce. There’s an easy explanation: COVID-19. That’s part of the puzzle, of course, but like with most questions, the easy answer falls short.

Our gut reaction may be to pin all of these problems to the intensity of the pandemic, but if we zoom out, we’ll see more to the story. The real question that arises is: Did the pandemic create a crisis when it comes to women and work? Or did it reveal a fracture in the American marketplace that has long affected female workers? 

Brisa Renteria left her corporate job in June 2020, the same month she had her first baby. Not only had the pandemic closed the daycare she’d lined up for her infant, but her husband’s employer was in the thick of mass layoffs. Renteria knew that if her husband couldn’t put in as much work as he typically did, he could be targeted for the next round.

A few months prior, Kristin Wise, the executive director at an inpatient substance abuse center, returned from maternity leave to learn that the facility was closing. “When they told me, I started crying, but I wasn’t sure if it was sadness or relief,” Wise says. “I loved my job, but our childcare option had just shut down, so it would have been a really stressful situation either way.”

Crystal-Mae Waugh Barrios was on maternity leave when COVID-19 forced her colleagues to teach their children from home. When her maternity leave ended in fall 2020, Waugh Barrios began remote work as a language development coach while caring for her 9-year-old, two toddlers, and her ailing father, who had just moved in with her family. In February 2021, when teachers were expected to return to the classrooms, Waugh Barrios quit her job to stay home. “I knew I had to put my family’s health first,” she says. 

Renteria, Wise, and Waugh Barrios are just three of the more than 2.3 million women who left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a phenomenon that economists are describing as a “she-session,” women are exiting the workforce in droves. Women’s unemployment has reached double digits for the first time since 1948. In September 2020, when many children again started remote learning, 800,000 Americans dropped out of the workforce at a 4:1 female-to-male ratio. 

Our gut reaction may be to pin all of these problems to the intensity of the pandemic, but if we zoom out, we’ll see more to the story. The real question that arises is: Did the pandemic create a crisis when it comes to women and work? Or did it reveal a fracture in the American marketplace that has long affected female workers? 

Historical Custom or Recent Trend?

It’s easy to project a sense of normalcy onto many of the gender roles we tend to ascribe in Western culture. Even the language we use — “traditional family structure,” for example — frames the idea of a father going to work and mother staying home to care for their children as the default setting.

“We have this idea that gender roles are natural, but the dad working and mom staying home are pretty recent cultural artifacts,” says Sarah Jane Glynn, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

In the American pioneer days, no woman was thinking about whether she should be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, observes Missy Wallace, managing director of Global Strategic Services at Redeemer City to City and a frequent contributor to Common Good. Wallace explains that the mothering and working roles couldn’t be extracted from one another in such a way during that time and that human survival depended upon their interweaving.

The pioneer woman’s work, in fact, may have more easily resonated with the depiction of the Proverbs 31 woman than it does the image of the mid-20th-century stay-at-home mom. 

She selects wool and flax

    and works with eager hands.

She is like the merchant ships,

    bringing her food from afar.

She gets up while it is still night;

    she provides food for her family

    and portions for her female servants.

She considers a field and buys it;

    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

She sets about her work vigorously;

    her arms are strong for her tasks.

She sees that her trading is profitable,

    and her lamp does not go out at night.

Proverbs 31:13-18

From the mother in the Ancient Near East to the pioneer woman — whether sowing and harvesting seeds, growing and preparing food to store for winter months, sewing clothes or tanning leather — all work was for the family, and the whole family participated in work. 

While the pioneer woman may be a relic of the American past, her lot is not. Many women in lower classes have no choice but to work outside of the home in order to ensure their family’s survival. Wallace warns that the stay-at-home mom versus working mom conversation can quickly become dishonoring to such women. This can play out in practical ways such as churches only offering women’s Bible studies during the workday, leaving women out of faith and work conversations, otherwise marginalizing working women in the very setting where they would hope to be most accepted.  

Such conversations call upon so many intellectual strains of thought — the theological, historical, and sociological — and prick at the heart of many a woman who wants to honor God, support her family, and perform the work she senses she was made to perform. This can all become remarkably confusing, leading women to wonder if it’s even possible to do all of this at once, and, if not, what’s supposed to be eliminated. 

This consideration, of course, is a modern conception in and of itself, and does not apply to every woman. The women left to maintain the homefront during World War II, for example, did not have a choice when it came to whether or not to take that gig at the factory. Their children’s bellies depended on it, and their country’s hope for an economic future depended on it. 

Similarly, Axios reported that the pandemic did not just reverse progress for American women workers. It eradicated three decades of it. 

A senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Program, Nicole Goldin, told Axios that we are again facing a time of economic risk due to women’s relationship to the marketplace. “When women are not maximized in the labor force, they are earning less,” said Goldin. “They are spending less, there’s less tax revenue. And there’s less economic growth.” 

How long will it take to rebuild?

Throughout American history, and for many women today, the question of whether or not to work when true survival doesn’t depend on it, remains a question. When the Industrial Revolution upended the norms of husbands and wives working together to run a farm or a trade, explains Joanna Meyer, director of public engagement at the Denver Institute of Faith and Work, the stark demarcation in parenting and working roles that we see today began to concretize. It was “the golden age of domesticity,” Meyer says. As men left to work in factories and accrued enough wealth to require only one income, the notion of building a culture upon women staying at home became a sign of prosperity, the ideal life representing the achievement of a cultural good both in terms of wealth and morality. 

After World War II, corporations traded their Rosie the Riveter advertising campaigns for the likes of Betty Crocker, who beckoned women out of the workplace and back into the home so that men could return to the factories. Being a stay at home mom, Wallace suggests, was glamorized in the post-war marketing pushes. Women were told that they had worked in the factories as an act of nobility in the absence of men, but now that the men had returned, it was time to return home as an act of nobility.

Many American Evangelical churches supported this cultural wave as well, espousing a complementarian view of gender roles that positioned men as leaders in the workplace, church, and home, and women as primarily focused on the home. Men were to provide for their families and lead in all spheres of influence, while women tended to the needs of their husbands and children first and foremost. The egalitarian understanding of biblical gender roles would gain more social presence in the 1960s, resurrecting an alternate perspective that levels the roles of men and women within the home and church. These interpretations of Scripture had, and continue to have, profound implications for Christian women in the workforce. 

The notion of women staying home as a moral act also had major racial implications. When the next stay-at-home mom wave hit in the 1950s and 60s, according to Glynn, women of color never faced the same expectation: “We have systematically through public policies really stigmatized non-white families, with the expectation that Black women should work outside the home, often caring for white women in their households,” Glynn says. 

Meyer explains that this cultural type has persisted and continues to shape how we think about women and work today. Sometimes, she explains, we don’t even realize that we’re assuming a cultural norm, and rather assume it to be inherently biblical. When ideas like at-home mothers and at-work fathers are presented as part and parcel of a Christian family values package, we may neglect to examine it up to the light of Scripture and ask if our cultural biases align with the Word of God. 

“The Bible has to be universal,” says Meyer. “This vision of the ‘ideal mother’ is very American. It’s very white and very white middle class. It’s not accessible to a woman who doesn’t fit a certain place, culture, or time. That [discrepancy] would imply [that the standard is] not biblical; it’s a cultural assumption.”

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A Rising Tide

Meyer suggests that the ideal mother isn’t the only cultural image we’re reckoning with when it comes to women and their fit, or lack thereof, in the marketplace. We also have to deal with the concept of the ideal worker. 

For decades now, the ideal American worker has been someone who devoted far more than 40 daytime hours to an office setting. From the idolized titans of industry like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to the endless stream of television characters falling asleep at their desks or working until daybreak, the image of the good American worker is one who will sacrifice just about anything to the gods of the job.

These understandings of “good mother” and “good worker” face a self-evident collision. Caregivers require flexibility. When a child is home sick for school or a snow day arrives, someone has to be able to focus on caregiving more than their eight-hour day in the office will allow. But it isn’t just that day’s work that may need to be pushed to tomorrow, which in many cases would be easy enough to handle. Because the “good worker” idea relies so heavily on tenets of office presence and hours clocked, the caregiving mother often finds herself carrying a load of escalated caretaking, work to catch up on, and impression management as she tries to prove to her boss that her caregiving responsibilities don’t diminish her ability to work. 

Of course, with COVID-19 some of our concepts of what makes a good worker were forced to change. This could actually open up new possibilities in women’s favor, Meyer suggests. But social structures still remain in place that Meyer says are built on the assumption that one member of a partnership will perform the bulk of the childcare. Almost always the woman.

Young girls, for example, are more likely to play with baby dolls or toy vacuum cleaners — toys marketed to encourage domesticity. Girls are also more likely to form caretaking skills early on by babysitting or caring for younger siblings.

“People talk about personal inclinations and choice, but it’s also about skillset,” Glynn says. “If you didn’t have younger siblings or you didn’t babysit, you’re unlikely to have built up skills like changing a diaper or feeding a baby. All of that has to be learned.”

This shows up in a major way when it comes to the standard American approach to paternal leave. Parental leave is a crucial time for men to learn essential parenting skills. From changing diapers to soothing screaming infants at 3 a.m., caregivers need the opportunity to develop skills over a significant amount of time in order to become comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, American dads are usually at the whim of their states or employers when it comes to parental leave. 

As of spring 2021, Congress is considering President Biden’s Family Plan, which could include 12 weeks of paid leave for parents. But, currently, there’s no federal paid leave legislation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2020, only 21 percent of civilian workers had access to paid family leave. Some fathers who cannot afford to lose a day’s income cannot take any time off at all when a baby joins their family. This leaves fathers with disproportionate access to time with their child and increases the burden on mothers to perform all caregiving skills while healing from childbirth. 

When workers do have access to parental leave in America, it’s usually a combination of disability leave, accrued vacation days, and maybe a few weeks of actual parental leave. However, employers are often less likely to provide that flexibility for men because of cultural norms around who should be working for pay and who is responsible for caregiving. These norms not only hinder the ability for women to thrive in the workplace, they hinder the ability for men to thrive in the home. 

A McKinsey report found that 100 percent of men who took paid paternity leave were glad they took the leave and would do so again. Fathers noted that they felt a “special” bond had formed with their children during leave and that they felt the benefits of leave outweighed the risk of a resulting career setback. Beyond that, 90 percent of fathers noticed an improvement in their relationship with their partners.

Despite this evidence, meaningful paternal leave remains unavailable to most men. Some of this, of course, is due to the natural processes around mothers and babies: mothers need time to heal from childbirth. Women who choose to breastfeed will need a lot of time with their babies in those early weeks and months. But the fact remains — a highly skewed system in which men cannot access sufficient time with their new children. 

“All of this creates a system that’s really unequal in every imaginable way, across locations, businesses, even within the same division of a business,” says Glynn. “If the husband has any paid leave at all, there’s not enough time to learn the skills necessary to feel comfortable parenting. Parenting a newborn is overwhelming and emotional, and then you have to go right back to work. That’s not a system where a man will feel confident being a primary caregiver or even a 50/50 partner in caregiving.”

Other countries’ research shows the effects of ample parental leave for dads are durable over time. For example, in Scandinavian countries, men maintain a deeper level of involvement in their children’s care as they age. 

“When dads make an early investment, they can stay involved in their child’s lives,” Glynn suggests. “There are loads of dads who would love to have more time at home and who want to be more involved, but they don’t have the support to do that. So if we want to help women, we also need to support men in taking on some of women’s burdens.”

Called to Co-laboring

As Glynn reflects on the history of women and work, she emphasizes an important truth: the pandemic made systemic marketplace flaws apparent, but it did not create them. 

“These aren’t new problems created by the pandemic. The cracks in the foundation have become so extreme that the whole building is about to fall down, but we just keep painting over them and pretending they don’t exist,” she says. “If we don’t learn anything from this experience and we try to go back to how things were in 2019, eventually, the whole house will fall down.”

The evidence bears this out. Well before the pandemic, caregiver discrimination was already rampant. For example, when researchers sent identical resumes to hiring managers, parental indication markers like volunteering with a Parent Teacher Association rendered candidates less likely to receive interviews. 

Once a woman leaves the workforce, it’s not always easy to go back. Resume gaps that are not explained by seeking out education or training can hurt a person’s chances of getting a job, according to Glynn. 

“What we really need to be focused on is, How good are the jobs women are returning to, and, Will they be able to stay in them?” Glynn says. “Employment isn’t ‘mission accomplished,’” says Glynn. “If people return in bad situations that don’t allow for long tenure then that’s not great economically, [or for] growth and productivity.”

Employer-based solutions can go a long way in supporting women in the workplace. Wallace points to Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) as a positive example. In response to the pandemic, PwC implemented a protected time policy which allows employees to set aside time when they are not available to colleagues. Parents could use those hours for childcare then work during nontraditional hours, such as when their children were asleep. PwC also allowed employees to become part-time or compress their workweek, and to choose their own start time. For those who needed time away from work, PwC offered a one to six month leave of absence for family reasons, during which employees would still receive 20 percent of their salary. The company also increased its childcare reimbursement figure to $2,000.

Companies like KPMG and Orion organized learning pods so their employees could shoulder the weight of childcare and virtual learning together. UnitedHealth Group reimbursed employees up to $100 per day for emergency childcare. Baptist Health South Florida launched an emergency childcare program that cared for employees’ children for just $10 per day.

The creativity of these solutions could create momentum for longer-term efforts. Companies and churches who want to be part of contributing to women’s flourishing must recognize that the marketplace often leaves women to till harder ground than their male counterparts. Because of the fall of humanity, work will be hard until Jesus returns. So will dynamics between men and women, whether in personal relationships or the workplace. 

Why are millions of women leaving the workforce? Because, as is, it’s not built for them, and it’s hard. Certainly, the COVID-19 era has been one of profound darkness, but one welcome result is its shining a light on the plight of women in the workforce through the stories of women like Renteria, Wise, and Waugh Barrios.

But our calling is clear. 

“Men and women are called to a common mission to cultivate and care for creation,” Meyer reminds us. “Ideally, we want to create a workplace where anyone can bring their full selves into corporate life and the [personal] responsibilities they have. It shouldn’t be compromising one to take care of the other.”   

For decades now, the ideal American worker has been someone who devoted far more than 40 daytime hours to an office setting. From the idolized titans of industry like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to the endless stream of television characters falling asleep at their desks or working until daybreak, the image of the good American worker is one who will sacrifice just about anything to the gods of the job. These understandings of “good mother” and “good worker” face a self-evident collision.
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