Just a few months ago, women in the workforce had reached a historic milestone: Excluding farm labor and self-employment, the number of women on U.S. payrolls exceeded the number of men. But now, experts say, that progress is in jeopardy.

COVID-19 has upended the United States’ “patchwork” system of child care— from formal programs such as schools, day care and summer camps, to informal solutions such as relying on relatives and friends to help out. The virus’ prevalence and way of spreading largely renders those resources unsafe. Parents and caregivers are now in charge of taking care of and entertaining their kids 24/7 — on top of working or job searching. These conflicting demands require all parents to make difficult choices. But research shows it’s mothers who are most frequently making career sacrifices for their children.

According to research from Syracuse University released last month, more than 80% of adults in the country not working in order to care for children who would be in school or daycare if not for COVID-19 are women. A recent paper published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization found that mothers of young children reduced their working hours four to five times more than fathers.

“There is a rot that’s at the core of women’s employment right now, and that’s child care and eldercare, and how women are going to maintain their place in the labor force when we’re really having a crisis of care in the country,” said Betsey Stevenson, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although young men today are much more likely to profess their belief in gender equality than those of previous generations, they are not significantly more likely to divide most household tasks equitably, from child care to grocery shopping. And COVID-19 does not seem to be changing this dynamic, Stevenson says.

“If the guy is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children,” Stevenson said. “And the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.”

This oversized demands on women leads to an impossible juggling act, which often forces them to cut back on work. In fact, this spring, employment rates for women fell to around where they were in the 1980s. Though they have been rising as the economy reopens, Stevenson warns that the long-term impact of this setback will be far-reaching — taking time off from work now could jeopardize future promotions and raises. And one of the main drivers of equality for women in the household is pay equity in the workforce. If a woman makes less money than her husband, the couple could prioritize his job over hers when it comes to figuring out child care and housework.

“[Fewer hours] will then reduce [women’s] earnings as a share of the household income, which will make them a less important labor market player in their household,” Stevenson said.

But Stevenson also suggests that the spotlight the pandemic has placed on child care has the potential to lead to lasting change.

“We’ve revealed that child care is just essential for just a giant share of the workforce, and to just ignore it and keep pretending it’s just a personal problem is a mistake in thinking about the macro economy,” Stevenson said. “What does a world look like where we make space for people to do the caregiving they need to do and move seamlessly back into their career?”

Teresa Lawlor is an intern at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @tmlawlor