The pandemic drove the gender gaps in employment and labor participation up by two percentage points, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. While women without children have made up some of those losses since the summer months, there is still a larger gap for mothers.
That makes the pandemic unique from previous recessions, according to María J. Luengo-Prado, a senior economist and policy advisor in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Research Department who authored the report.
"As the economy started to reopen after the summer, we started to see a divergence between what had happened to women without children and what had happpened to women with children," she said.
Luengo-Prado points out the big difference between mothers with school-aged children not going back to work and women without kids getting into the work force again has been the reopening of schools. With schools not open for much of the pandemic, women have taken the brunt of childcare responsibilities.
She said having schools reopening will help, but it's still not clear yet how many women with children will be willing or able to immediately get back into the workforce.
"The summer is around the corner and we don't know what the school districts are going to do, but very likely schools are not going to run during the summer," she said. "And then if they have children to think about, what do you do with the kids in the summer? ... So I think some women will wait until the fall to come back, if I had to guess. But there are certainly some other women who don't have the luxury of waiting around and maybe need to work, and they will come back."
The study confirmed what Leslie Forde, the founder of the Mom's Hieararchy of Needs community, has seen among mothers during the pandemic.
She said that many families treat schools as a primary source of childcare.
"The childcare situation was pretty anaemic before the pandemic, and now it's that much more constrained," she said. "So it is effecting, as the report described, prime women — women who are kind of in the year where they're likely to have school-aged children — in a disproportionate way. Which is sad and, I think, devastating."
Forde said that mothers who have had to stop working are doing it as a last resort, and she's hopeful that the return of in-person schools can lead to some stability. But she also wants a broader look at how workplaces function when it comes to parent needs, especially around childcare and after-school care.
"What I'd love to see is that many of these care infrastrutcture supports that we've needed for decades become permanent and enduring after the pandemic is over," she said.