Flexibility Can't Wait: Parenting During Covid-19
Our research director Sally shares her personal reflection on how COVID-19 working conditions have impacted women in the workplace.
Much research has been done on the gender pay gap and its financial impact over the course of women’s careers. But economic security is not only related to what individuals earn now, but also to their access to information and networks that increase their social capital. The conditions imposed on many women during the pandemic impact not only our current income but also our ability to participate in activities that increase our networks. The reality of how our society places more responsibility for childcare on women has always been apparent in my own life and the lives of other women around me. Still, it has never been so starkly obvious as it has since schools and daycares closed in early March. Now, many women are forced to choose between family and participation in events that increase the likelihood of being in a position that society does recognize as important, useful, and deserving of recognition.
I acknowledge that everyone’s experience of the changing work environment under COVID-19 is individual. I cannot speak for all women and mothers. Still, I can speak for myself and the impact the last six months have had on my career and professional development. I have a son, five years old at the time of this writing. We lost our daycare in March due to social distancing guidelines. Now we are facing my son’s first year of kindergarten, taught remotely until further notice. My husband’s job does not make accommodations for the extra childcare responsibilities placed on families, so the bulk of the labor (mental, physical, and emotional) falls on me.
I understand how social structures impede women’s access to social and financial capital, and I know what the “right” thing to do is in this situation - I should demand that my husband’s employer acknowledge he has family responsibilities. I should protect my work and my career. But the financial reality is that my husband’s income is significantly higher than my own. I have the same fear that I believe many women have at this moment. Fear that demanding what I know is right will impact his job and his ability to support our family financially. The time I demand for myself is time taken away from his work and his potential earnings. So it makes sense, financially, that I take on the majority of the childcare responsibilities. But despite this sensible financial evaluation of our situation, I am acutely aware of the access to information I am missing when I give priority to childcare. In addition to having very little time for work, it is now nearly impossible to attend many of those networking and educational conferences and events (online now, but still active) that I rely on to increase my network and stay current on career opportunities. If I manage to attend, it is always with one ear to my child, and I cannot fully participate in the way I used to. These opportunities may not pay in the short-term, but they are steppingstones to future material and social capital.
This choice to conform to the dominant social model that I, as a woman, should carry the burden of childcare is so painful because I know that for structural inequalities to exist, I must play along. I accept them. I choose to prioritize childcare responsibilities over my career and my education. I am deferring my own education and career aspirations out of fear for what will happen if I ask for too much from my husband’s employer. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the increasing need for companies like Uvvalabs to work on identifying and addressing structural inequalities in our society. The irony of this for me is that, as a woman raising a child, I have very little time to do that work.
So what is the solution? First, employers must actively adapt to the new workplace reality under COVID-19. They cannot wait this out - inaction or a slow response will disproportionately affect women. The women impacted will be their own employees and the partners of their employees who must take on childcare responsibilities. And the impact will be long-term, the compound effect of lost time and missed opportunities for networking and future career development. The responsibility for society’s unequal power structures is larger than the workplace. Still, employers have a responsibility to acknowledge and combat the social pressure that places unequal burdens on women. They can start by offering flexible work schedules. However, they must ensure that they create a workplace environment where employees feel safe taking advantage of the flexibility. They should also acknowledge the missed opportunities for networking and career growth by ensuring that employees have time to participate in networking and formal mentoring programs. Lack of flexibility and limited access to formal mentoring and networking opportunities have always impacted women more than men, but it is now more urgent than ever that employers create these programs to support their workforce. If they do not, the impact on women will continue long after schools and daycares reopen.