The Question of Childcare and Women in the Workplace During COVID

Jeff Myhre | | Change Management

women in the workforce have been hit hard by unemploymentThe pandemic has created an economic disaster for every nation. By many measures, it’s worse than the Great Depression. One of the main measures is Gross Domestic Product (which has plummeted), but the metric that means more to a majority of people is the jobless rate. For February 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics posted an unemployment rate of just 3.5%. That means about 5.8 million people in the workforce were unemployed. By April, those numbers were 14.7% and 23.1 million respectively. Moreover, the BLS noted that those figures may have missed as much as 3% in calculating the rate, and possibly 5 million from the number of unemployed because of how workers are categorized and classified. Even for those who still have jobs, many are still grappling with the challenge of childcare. This is especially true for women in the workplace bearing a heavier share of the burden.

Job Loss and Gender

As I learned a long time ago, life isn't fair, and some people get hurt more when things hit the fan. In the recession that began in 2008, men lost jobs faster than women because jobs usually done by men (e.g., construction) vanished faster.

This time around, women are suffering more. CNBC reported that, in April 2020, women lost 55% of the jobs, while men lost only 45%. That wiped out the 11.1 million jobs that had been created for women in the workplace between the 2008 crash and February 2020. While it’s true that employment has bounced back a bit, we’re a long way from breaking even.

Underlying this disparity is the issue of childcare. The fact of the matter is women do more child rearing than men. For the first few months, you can make the argument that this is biologically determined. However, as time goes on and the kid grows more independent, it becomes more of a cultural matter. And, for better or worse, women continue their predominant role in raising the next generation even when it’s not biologically necessary for Mom to do it rather than Dad.

Childcare Disaster

A survey by Northeastern University points out a number of unpleasant facts. One third of the American workforce are working parents. That means that one third of the American workforce needs some kind of solution to the problem of childcare. If the country doesn’t address childcare, 50 million willing and able workers are adversely affected. The survey noted that 18.88% of people who lost their jobs did so for lack of childcare when we closed the schools. That right there is bad. However, 12.75% of men who lost jobs did so due to childcare problems. For women in the workplace, the figure was 25.53%.

working parents must deal with the childcare crisisA similar, but less dramatic, pattern exists among those whose hours were reduced. 17.44% of people who had their hours reduced lost hours because of childcare difficulties. But break it down by gender and, for men, the figure was 16.48%, while for women, it was 18.51%. The loss is spread more evenly, but women were still affected more.

The survey states, “Addressing the childcare needs of working parents is a key element of reopening the economy, yet little federal aid has been directed toward solving this problem to date. Failure to do so has implications for the childcare industry, the longer-term career trajectories of many parents, and the well-being and education of their children.”

Women in the workplace already have to cope with balancing the challenge of careers and pregnancy. And corporate America has consistently been less than helpful when it comes to supporting moms-to-be and new moms.

Group Daycare and Disease

A pandemic, where the pathogen is an airborne virus, creates significant issues for group daycare. Even before COVID-19 hit, childcare was expensive, so wealthier parents could manage, and poorer parents were out of luck. Now, the issue of infection is giving the cost a run for its money. Having large numbers of kids in enclosed spaces is just a bad idea. If I were to design a germ-warfare lab, it would probably look like a toddler’s daycare – lots of potential hosts lacking certain personal-hygiene habits, and just enough population density to spread stuff around. The fact is, daycare centers with the capacity for hundreds of kids may be gone for a while.

In the long term, we’re facing a widening of the gender-pay gap because of the pandemic. If women's careers were damaged because they took time off to start a family in the pre-COVID days, they’re not going to fare better if they miss weeks, months or years caring for the kids now.

But we face a more immediate problem. I’m of the school that says nothing is going to be adequately fixed until we contain the virus and that probably requires a reliable vaccine. The fastest science has ever produced a vaccine was four years (mumps). Our biotech is vastly better these days, and maybe we really will have one by the end of the year. And maybe we can mass produce it in sufficient quantities so that a year or so from now, things start to feel normal again.

So then, what do we, as corporate leaders and HR professionals, do for the next 12–18 months?

Three Ways to Support Women

To start, preventing any gender gap might be in order. If there are layoffs or reduced hours, a certain sensitivity to gender equality should also be taken into account. Naturally, there are other factors when it comes to reducing headcount, but if people are going to find themselves without work, the policies for determining who shouldn’t disproportionately affect any one group. Evaluating policies for hidden biases against women in the workplace (and other marginalized groups) is always a good idea.

we're learning lessons about work life balanceSecond, the younger the child, the more parental attention they require. Policies that treat a mother of a ten-year-old the same as the mother of a ten-month-old probably need revision. One size doesn't fit all. If you’re not sure how to do that, ask for suggestions or feedback. Working parents are problem solvers who might think of new solutions.

Third, focus on results rather than the time put in. Handel wrote his famous “Messiah” in just 24 days. Few other pieces of music measure up regardless of how long the composer worked on them. In business, the results are what matters. This is why I’ve always liked publishing and journalism. There’s a set deadline and how you meet it isn’t important. There are more jobs like this than you may know.

We’ve been programmed to think in terms of the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week but, really, why? On the factory floor, it was easy to equate productivity with time spent turning screws. In truth, the time spent was merely part of an equation focused on the number of things coming off the line. Managers need to stop worrying about accounting for every minute of an employee’s workday. They need to refocus on task completion. Accomplishment needs to be the new Holy Grail of business.

The Future of Work

An article in Twin Cities Business magazine put it this way, “The future of work, during and post-COVID, is built on a foundation where each person is held accountable to measurable results, and each person is autonomous, making choices every day about the most effective and efficient way to deliver results for their employer.”

If COVID-19 kills of micromanaging, I won't mourn. And if Jane can't give her manager an update at a regularly scheduled Zoom meeting because her child needs her attention just then, so what? Let Jane update her manager via email when there is an update to give. What matters is that Jane finishes her work on time. When all is said and done, managers have to try trusting their staff to do the job right.

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