Two-year-old Eleanor Stanley has started playing a new game with her four-year-old brother Reed: They pretend to be on a Zoom call. Since their day care shut down, they’ve had a lot of time to observe how their parents spend their time during the work week. Mostly, said Jess and Zach Stanley, who have both been working from their Westwood home, they're trying to do two things at once.
“There’s always a part of your brain that’s looking at the phone while you’re chasing the kid down the street,” said Zach Stanley, vice president of public affairs for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
“You’re trying to listen or really focus on a conference call or a strategy discussion,” said Jess Stanley, vice president of marketing at Rasky Partners, “and you’re also being yelled at by your four year old that you’re not peeling his orange fast enough.”
They praise their employers as supportive, take advantage of being able to work late at night and early in the morning, but — with two careers, two young kids and no child care — they aren’t sure how much longer they can continue their pandemic life-style.
“There’s definitely this pull,” said Jess Stanley, “and it makes you feel you’re torn into two.”
And research shows that pull more often than not leads mom, not dad, to take a step back from work. As the headline of a New York Times op-ed that went viral put it: "In the Covid Economy, You Can Have A Kid Or A Job. You Can’t Have Both." The consequences at all levels of the pay scale can be devastating.
“Why is it that it’s so difficult for a working mother be able to thrive in an economy?” asked Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance, a national advocacy organization that advocates for low-wage workers. “And to maintain employment regardless of a pandemic, but especially in a pandemic, when they really are shouldering so much of the burden?”
Calls to the organization’s legal helpline have quadrupled, she said, since schools shut down in March, and the vast majority are from women who work as cashiers, wait staff and in health care.
“We are seeing that there are so many women who are in front line positions and then are also having to choose between having a child and taking care of that child,” said Gedmark, ”or going into work and potentially risking their health.”
One thing few front line workers seem to know about, she said, is the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). It allows up to 12 weeks of mostly paid leave for people who can’t work remotely and have children whose school or day care is closed because of the coronavirus. The Department of Labor said through a spokesperson that it does not track the number of people who’ve taken leave under the FFCRA.
Not all parents can access that leave — for instance, large companies are exempt. But even when flexible arrangements are available, Colleen Ammerman of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, said working moms often pay a price.
“They’re seen as lower performing even though their actual output and productivity is just as high or higher,” she said.
Ammerman said those kind of biases, along with stereotypes that link women to caregiving, will add to the pressures of the pandemic and potentially lead many women to cut back or give up work altogether. There’s already research that shows female academics have submitted fewer articles to academic journals because they’re spending more time caring for children.
“So you’re already, just a few months in, seeing the effects of this and studies that say, you know, ‘When both parents are working at home, women are doing more of the child management.’”
The pandemic hasn’t created new inequities as much as its exacerbated existing ones, said Ammerman. She points out that child care has long been viewed largely as an individual problem instead of a societal good.
Zach Stanley agrees. He’s watched colleagues struggle to advance once they become mothers, and he worries not only about finding a way to make sure both he and his wife can continue to manage careers and kids, but also to make sure his colleagues can, too.
“Talent retention is one of the biggest problems out there right now,” he said. “I think the effect of the situation we’re in right now is that women are going to get disadvantaged even further, and they’re going to start dropping out of the workforce. I think employers should be really nervous.”