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Setbacks for Working Mothers Are Nothing New

Setbacks for Working Mothers Are Nothing New

The pandemics worsening effect on already undervalued women

An Unequal Pandemic, Recession, and Return to the Worksite

The COVID-19 pandemic left far more American women struggling, unemployed, or experiencing burnout than men. Due primarily to the demands for childcare in the wake of mass and protracted school closings, more than 800,000 women left the workforce between August and September 2020, according to The New York Times. According to McKinsey, the pandemic set women back half a decade. At the US pandemic peak, women’s unemployment had risen by 2.9 percentage points higher than men’s unemployment.

The same study showed that 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say childcare was one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, compared to 54% of fathers with young children. In addition, mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most housework and caregiving. Mothers, many of whom still work full time, are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare—adding up to an additional 20 hours of work a week, the equivalent of an extra (and typically unpaid) half-time job.

This inequitable pattern continues as social isolation and mask-use mandates are lifted—because American business may give lip service to gender equity but produce a glaring lack of tangible amelioration.

Women expecting babies fare no better. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pregnancy discrimination lawsuits rose by 19% during 2020. The cost of parental leave and the prospect of increased health care costs make pregnant workers more vulnerable to furloughs, layoffs, or forced exit. That vulnerability was compounded in 2020 as some employers refused to allow pregnant employees to work on-site. In June, the EEOC updated guidance to note that “even if motivated by benevolent concern,” such a practice is barred under federal law.

Discrimination Against Pregnant People and Working Mothers Isn’t New.

The situation for pregnant women and working mothers wasn’t much better before the pandemic. For example, in more than 66% of gender discrimination cases filed between 2015 and 2019, the courts sided with employers, stating that they didn’t need to provide pregnant women or working moms accommodations. As a result, a recent Washington State University study of pregnant women in physically demanding jobs showed that the majority (about 63%) experienced “stereotype threat” or the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about pregnancy. The study found this led many women to conceal their pregnancy and over-perform, putting their health and baby at risk. Also, pregnancy discrimination has been linked to increased postpartum depressive symptoms, lower birth weights, and increased baby doctor visits.

The situation doesn’t improve for working women once they give birth. According to an analysis of Census data by the non-profit National Women’s Law Center, mothers in the US are paid 71 cents for every $1 father make—about $16,000 a year in lost wages. In some cases, fathers increase their income after having a child. These dueling trends are known as the “motherhood penalty” and the “fatherhood premium.” Women who continue to work after having children face discrimination, judgment, and negative consequences, such as being passed over for promotions. White women and women of color reported that coworkers and managers questioned their commitment or competence once they had kids. Forty-nine percent of women of color and 56% of White women felt that their colleagues’ perceptions of them changed after having children. Twenty percent of women reported that colleagues advised them to stay home or put their career on hold after having children—compared with only 5% of White men.

New Policies Are Needed

Congress is considering a bill known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act or PWFA. It was first introduced in 2012 and has been reintroduced in the House in almost every legislative session since but has never passed. The PWFA would clarify and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed more than 40 years ago as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That original law, for the most part, is ambiguous, some politicians and legal experts say. Key terms are undefined, and too often, the burden falls on employees to prove discrimination. At its root, the law treats “accommodations”— slight and temporary changes to schedules or assignments for health reasons — for pregnant women as a fringe benefit, not a mandatory one.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act required certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family leave related to Covid-19, which expired on Dec. 31. President Joe Biden put forth a plan to allow for 14 weeks of paid sick leave and family and medical leave for parents faced with shuttered schools or child care centers, but it is pending Congressional approval.

Employers Play a Critical Role

Changing policies and laws to protect pregnant women and working parents (mothers and fathers) are critical to ensuring gender parity in the workplace. But it won’t be enough to cause true systemic change. Employers must consider what a truly equitable workplace looks like. According to McKinsey, the following factors are strong predictors of whether an employee is considering leaving their job:


  • Lack of flexibility at work
  • Feel like they need to be available to work at all hours
  • Worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities and involved parenting
  • Discomfort sharing the challenges they are facing with teammates or managers
  • Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work (such as suddenly making in-office work mandatory or demanding extra work hours)
  • Feeling unable to bring their whole self to work

Employers should consider the following: Does your company have wage transparency and parity policies? Suppose more women at your workplace choose hybrid schedules than men. What steps are you taking to ensure they aren’t missing out on opportunities for collaboration, new projects, salary increases, and promotion? What are you doing to ensure women are in the pipeline for leadership—especially women of color?

There are many steps employers can take to retain female workers and working parents:


  1. Revisit ideas and reset policies to allow for more flexible work arrangements, including remote work options and time-off policies.
  2. Conduct a pay equity study to ensure that women and mothers earn the same as men and fathers.
  3. Ensure that employee performance is evaluated based on outcomes rather than whether workers opt to work longer hours or appear in person.
  4. Create an environment that acknowledges the role of parents.
  5. Reexamine your benefits system. Encourage employee assistance programs, bereavement support, and mental-health assistance for increased stress.
  6. Offer parental perks. Consider offering bonuses such as kid-friendly virtual events, mental health days, and support groups for those with kids at home.
  7. Take a fresh look at paternity leave. In a recent multi-country interview with 130 new fathers and their partners, McKinsey found that parental leave can strengthen partner relationships, help establish a shared parental role, and support a spouse’s career and the family finances.

In Closing…

Empathy alone won’t be enough for both male and female leaders to keep women in the workforce. When it comes to closing the gender wage gap, addressing overwork and stigmatizing employees who ask for nontraditional schedules is critical.

The power to make this shift lies with managers and executives. If the pandemic proved that the work gets done without employees being required to be on-site for a traditional eight-hour day, why are so many companies eager to get “back to normal?” Employers who recognize this moment as an opportunity to make work and life better and more equitable for all workers are sure to have an advantage in attracting and retaining talent.

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