How the pandemic is affecting working mothers

Since the pandemic began in February, women have been leaving the labor force in significantly greater numbers than men, according to several recent studies based on U.S. Census data. Working mothers are especially vulnerable; they’re nearly three times more likely than men not to be working because of child care demands.

Parent holding a baby in one arm while sitting at a table with a laptop.

The numbers signal a disturbing downward trend in gender equality in the workplace, and many researchers are concerned about the long-term implications of women’s employment.

“All women, but particularly working mothers, come under stress during normal times, and this pandemic has really put them under stress,” says Janice Bellace, Wharton emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics. “If they’re not working, what does that mean, particularly now that we’re starting a school year where there’s virtual schooling? Well, that means they really are exiting the labor force.”

According to Bellace, 30 years of academic research has shown that leaving the labor force to take care of children lowers a woman’s career earnings, retirement savings and chances for promotion.

“This period is unlike the 2008 recession … because it heavily affected sectors that traditionally employ more men, including construction and financial services. Women are suffering more in this pandemic because they work in larger numbers than men in hospitality, retail, and other types of service jobs that seldom offer health insurance or paid leave, often cannot be done remotely and which have been hard hit by lockdowns,” says Bellace.

“In addition, unemployment is even higher among minority women because they make up a majority of workers in the service sector, according to census data.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.