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Will COVID-19 Push Women Out of the Labor Force?

What will happen if the economy opens but schools do not?

Source: Pexels
Will schools remain closed?
Source: Pexels

What happens if the economy reopens and schools do not? Is it possible that much of the feminist progress of the last 50 years could be washed away by COVID-19? If Rosie the Riveter and her sisters who “manned” the heavy industries during WWII could be sent home after the war, could the same happen to women after the pandemic? When America needed workers in mid-Twentieth Century during wartime, women were recruited and day care centers funded. But when the war ended, and the veterans returned home, those women were pushed out of the labor force. They were sent home to become domestic wives, leaving the jobs for the men. The government-funded propaganda to promote woman’s place at home. Even more effective, they stopped funding the day care centers. The best way to ensure women cannot compete for jobs is to deprive them of child care.

Could this happen again? We can’t ask Rosie the Riveter, but we can learn from her experience. What will happen if the economy opens slowly but day care centers and schools do not? This scenario gives me nightmares because women’s gains may be stolen from us. When work opens but schools do not, we have a crisis on our hands.

Children have two parents, so why is this just a crisis for women? Why don’t all parents matter, and not just mothers? It is indeed clear that young fathers today, or at least some of the married ones, do actually contribute equally to the care of their children. But while it is great that marriages are more diverse and some are actually egalitarian, such couples are still in the minority. Most fathers today do more caregiving than their fathers but less than their wives. In addition, gender norms within heterosexual couples often remain strong. When meeting new challenges, people often fall back on habits and tradition. Some colleagues and I analyzed data collected by The New York Times and found that women during the COVID-19 pandemic, most parents did more child care and housework, but women did far more, and more importantly, women were most likely to take on the new task of homeschooling. More troubling, very recent research by Collins, Landivar, Ruppanner and Scarborough shows that women were far more likely to cut back their paid hours during the first few months of the pandemic. This research finds that among married couples where both parents worked in professions where telecommuting was common during the pandemic, women cut back their work for pay hours, at home, nearly five times more than did men. When parents go “home to work,” it is women’s work that suffers. One of my colleagues, Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan, a professor at Wellesley College with two young children, told me it seems as if “everyone has forgotten about kids needing care.”

Source: Pexels
Working at home?
Source: Pexels

What would happen if the mother and father have to go back to the office, unemployment insurance ends, and schools and day care centers remain closed? Which parent do you think will decide that the kids are simply more important than anything else? In some households, it will simply be about following the money, if the husband earns more. But in other families, it may simply be that fathers see their primary contribution to the family as economic even if they don’t earn more, and so feel driven to succeed in their jobs, leaving mothers with little choice but to prioritize their kids. Sociologists have a terrible track record for predictions, but I will make a safe one here: if the economy opens and day care centers stay shut, women will be pushed out of the labor force. Women married to men whose paycheck can cover the bills will become economic dependents of their husbands and their families will have to forego their monetary contributions. The longer those women remain outside the labor force, the further behind they fall, and the less likely they can regain their footing and protect their lifetime earning capacity. Single mothers will fall into poverty, and if lucky, find a temporary safety net in some government services.

Families will scramble to survive. The gap between those who can afford private nannies and tutors and the rest will grow into a chasm. Black, Indigenous, and other women of color who are economically underprivileged will suffer the most.

Gender equality in America will also suffer. A world where women depend on the men with whom they are currently sleeping for food and clothing is a world where women (and often their children) are one argument away from economic insecurity. A world where women without husbands have to decide between leaving children alone or earning a living, is a world dangerous to children. It may be that a world without schools is also a danger to children, especially children from underprivileged areas. The equality of men and women depends on having an infrastructure of care. We cannot drive cars without roads. We cannot have economic activity without people who care for the children. The infra-structure of care was inadequate pre-COVID. The United States has never funded public child care as do European countries. But we have always had public schools that left parents free to work for pay during most of the day.

If the economy opens and schools do not, parents will have to face dire circumstances and many women will be pushed out of the labor force. How is it that politicians in this country think that bars, gyms, and restaurants are essential to open but not schools? Are children, and their mothers, of so little value? Where are our family values? If the economy opens and schools do not, children will be left alone, or their mothers will be forced out of their jobs. Once again, American women will follow in the footsteps of Rosie the Riveter, pushed out of the labor force because they have nowhere safe to leave their children. Child-care centers and schools are a prerequisite for a functional economy, or at least one that includes women. If women are considered full citizens with the right to work for pay, then days and schools must open before workplaces. Are women really equal citizens or not? Unfortunately, in this political moment, I am terrified to learn the answer.

More from Barbara J. Risman Ph.D.
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