Casey Osborn-Hinman describes it as “this secret underground world”: the bind facing women across the country as they navigate the impossible task of managing full-time child care while holding down full-time jobs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a challenge unlikely to recede as Seattle, King County and Bellevue school districts prepare to go online-only this fall.
“Women are bearing most of the burden of this crisis in terms of caregiving,” she said, and because women’s careers and caregiving roles have historically been underestimated, “we’re all working like five jobs” in that underground world. “And on the surface, it appears to be OK, but in our secret world, we’re all just struggling.”
Aug. 18 marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, when some women in the United States first won the right to vote. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of women in the workforce has grown from 28.6% in 1945 to 46.8% in 2016. Policy changes from the legalization of abortion to the Affordable Care Act’s embattled copay-free birth control provision presented major steps forward for American women. But the COVID-19 outbreak has cast into sharp relief the persistence of gender inequality in the United States, particularly as it concerns domestic labor.
The idea of the “second shift,” the household labor stacked on top of a working mother’s paid employment, is hardly new, but since the start of the pandemic, women’s household responsibilities have snowballed, and have either had to coexist with work, stretching routines and sleep schedules, or taken its place, pulling women out of the workforce in a shift that could have major ramifications for gender equality long into the future.
It’s just one of many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, and will, likely for years to come. In “The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality,” a paper published April 14 in COVID Economics — a collection of emerging scholarship on the societal impacts of COVID-19 from London’s Centre for Economic Policy Research — Titan Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey and Michèle Tertilt found that while typical recessions tend to impact men’s employment more than women’s, “the employment drop related to social distancing measures has a large impact on sectors with high female employment shares” and “closures of schools and day care centers have massively increased child care needs, which has a particularly large impact on working mothers.”
Pandemics are also worse for women than for men. As mapped out in “COVID-19: A Gender Lens,” a technical brief released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in March, “pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls and discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities and those in extreme poverty, worse.”
One reason for this relates to employment: women hold 70% of health care and social sector jobs worldwide. That means women are at elevated risk of infection. In the Seattle metropolitan area, this holds true: Women represent 46% of the total workforce, but 63% of essential workers.
Other risks exacerbated by pandemics include domestic violence, rates of which tend to increase during pandemics, and access to reproductive and sexual health care, which tends to be reduced.
Taken together, the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent recession have had profoundly negative impacts on women, especially if they happen to be working parents. It’s a problem likely felt by many parents who, like Osborn-Hinman did when the pandemic first began, wake up at 4 or 5 a.m., juggle child care and work demands all day, and continue working, often well into the night, after putting their children to bed. Or, as Smitten Kitchen food blogger and working parent Deb Perelman put it in a New York Times op-ed that drew over 2,000 comments: “Let me say the quiet part loud: In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”
“It does take a toll”
After the COVID-19 outbreak, Osborn-Hinman was forced to adapt to this limiting new reality in her own family, but as the senior campaign director for workplace justice at local family policy nonprofit MomsRising, she also looked at it from a policy perspective.
The lack of support for working parents, particularly for women, was evident long before the pandemic, with limited access nationally to child care and paid leave programs. COVID-19 threw the absence of these resources into sharp relief. “It’s clear as a society that we’ve never valued caregiving, especially caregiving by women, and now, at a time when we need it the most, women are feeling the impacts of not having those systems and policies and structures in place to make caregiving possible,” Osborn-Hinman said.
After taking their youngest out of day care, Osborn-Hinman and her husband attempted to manage full-time care of their children, ages 2 and 6, while maintaining full-time work schedules. This meant waking up early and staying up late to complete work projects after putting the kids to bed. They spent the day “toggling back and forth between conference calls, time-sensitive assignments at work, keeping our 2-year-old relatively entertained and happy and safe, and then trying to do remote learning with our kindergartner, who of course could not be on a Zoom call without some type of assistance and engagement from one of the two of us.”
“I want to be totally clear that we experience a lot of privilege — we both have very supportive and flexible employers, we have job security, we have stable housing,” Osborn-Hinman said. “And so in some ways, it’s a privilege that we were able to manage. But it was totally unsustainable for us and it was unsustainable for our kids.”
It was so unsustainable that Osborn-Hinman and her partner now take turns working reduced schedules to manage child care while the other works. “I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors by hiding how incredibly difficult it is, despite our privilege, because we are all drowning,” she said.
Without robust social programs to fill in the gaps, Osborn-Hinman said, “We’ve made it very hard for people who do have the option to choose, and we’ve made it exceptionally difficult for people who don’t have as many choices as families like mine do.”
Who has fewer choices? Women of color, low-income women and single mothers; the latter account for nearly 70% of all American households headed by a single parent. The COVID-19 outbreak is unique, too, in that it cuts off an entire informal network of supplemental child care from family members (grandparents especially are now high-risk), friends and neighbors.
Gina McMann, who works for Wells Fargo and has a 10-year-old son, found a workaround by forming a quarantine bubble with her neighbor, also a single mother with a son close in age to McMann’s. If one of them needs a break, they send their child over. “It’s just an open-door policy that we’ve had that’s probably saved both of us,” she said.
McMann estimated that her income took “a 50% hit” when the pandemic began; at that time, she was trying to manage her son’s schoolwork while continuing to work. Like Osborn-Hinman, she had to take a step back and was now working to catch up over her son’s summer vacation.
The lack of routine has been particularly hard on her family, McMann said, and she vacillated between hoping her son would be able to go back to school and concerns over whether it would be safe to send him back. “You’re always living in this constant little bit of chaos every single day … before you would have these systematic routines that were set up, that helped alleviate some of the chaos. And I don’t think that exists right now,” she said.
Newly chaotic routines can be even more challenging for single parents who are managing personal illness or caring for other family members, or when something else goes wrong. This is the situation that Darsheen Sargent faced when, just as the outbreak and subsequent lockdowns began, she had to move to a new home after being displaced by a fire.
A certified nursing assistant and a member of MomsRising, Sargent works in home health care. After a client’s daughter was diagnosed with COVID-19, Sargent herself came down with symptoms. She eventually tested negative for COVID-19, and was able to secure a leave of absence from her job to care for her 11-year-old daughter when schools closed.
But Sargent said she and her daughter are limited in terms of activities they can do because Sargent makes regular visits to her mother, who is currently undergoing cancer treatment, and cannot risk exposure. She said she found it helpful to speak with other women finding ways to make it work, even if they had additional help. “It’s just some don’t, for various reasons,” she said, “and it does definitely take a toll.”
Even in two-parent households, the division of labor often falls along traditional gender lines. According to the COVID Economics paper, heterosexual married women perform nearly 60% of child care in couples where both parents work full time. It posits that if child care needs increase by 20 hours per week during the outbreak, women who work full time would take on 12 additional caregiving hours compared with eight for their male partners; if one spouse must drop out of the workforce even temporarily to care for children, it will probably be the woman.
Osborn-Hinman said she has seen this firsthand in friends who’ve stepped back from their careers while their husbands continue to work because they earn more money, “like we’re being penalized for inequities that have been around for decades.”
“The scale of this crisis kind of makes things like pay equity and career growth seem insignificant,” she said. “But the reality is that when men don’t have to take time from their job, they’re going to continue to grow in their careers and their earnings, and yet again, women are going to be sidelined.”
“It’s pretty clear what works”
With the United States’ failed response to the pandemic and vaccines still in trial stages, this situation is unlikely to change any time soon, and could set back progress on gender equality significantly a century after the advent of voting rights for some American women.
But the devolution isn’t inevitable. The UNFPA technical brief offers a number of strategies to lessen the impact of pandemics on women and girls, although some — like ensuring continued access to reproductive health care — would likely be nonstarters in abortion-hostile areas of the U.S., and others — like incorporating women’s perspectives into planning response efforts — would need to have been implemented months ago to be effective.
This approach has been successful in other countries like New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, herself a working parent who was the country’s first head of state to be pregnant while in office, led a uniquely successful virus containment effort. Notably, Ardern has publicly addressed even the most granular of challenges facing parents during COVID-19 — in the spring, she suggested during a news conference that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, while “essential workers,” might find it “difficult at the moment … to perhaps get everywhere.”
Working parents in New Zealand also have access to national paid family leave and child care subsidies for preschool-aged children. Resources like these, said MomsRising’s Osborn-Hinman, would lessen the burden on working parents in the U.S.
“It’s pretty clear what works,” Osborn-Hinman said. “We just need to be willing to make the investments that are needed.”
Tax reform could help set up revenue streams to fund both, she said. “And then I would say underlying all of that is really critical work around racial justice and fighting anti-Black racism and measures like defunding the police so that, as we pass policies and programs in the social safety net space, all families experience those benefits equally and that we don’t unintentionally continue to perpetuate opportunity gaps.”
In the meantime, working parents — and mothers in particular — continue to navigate an impossible bind. For Sargent, that means taking things one day at a time, “and sometimes it might just be a second at a time,” she said. “I just really have been learning to just stop, take those moments to just sit and breathe and say, ‘OK, I can handle this,’ or ‘I can’t handle this. And so what am I missing? What do I do?’”
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