Asked during a hearing a couple of weeks ago by Pennsylvania Congressman Fred Keller why “women-held positions [were] disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Inez Stepman replied: “That’s a question you should take up with Randi Weingarten.”
Stepman, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum (where I also have an affiliation) was right about that. The major reason why so many women had to drop out of the labor force in the past 18 months — and why 300,000 left the workforce in September alone — was the shuttering of schools. And Weingarten, the head of the nation’s largest teachers union, was doing everything she could to keep them closed.
This fall, even if they were not doing remote learning, many schools have been periodically quarantining large segments of their population or sending kids home with stuffy noses and waiting days for them to get negative COVID tests. It’s hard to hold down a job with this nonsense going on.
For mothers of younger children, too, there has been a shortage of daycare facilities. Because they lost so much revenue during the pandemic many of them had to close. And those that remained open are experiencing staffing shortages. According to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 80 percent were having trouble finding workers.
Of course, this problem is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Women are dropping out of the workforce because other women who take care of their children are dropping out of the workforce.
But there are other reasons too. Women’s employment — just like men’s — was hardly encouraged by federal and state governments dropping money into their laps, either in the form of COVID relief, child tax credits or guarantees that they could not be evicted from their homes even if they didn’t pay their rent. Many upper- and middle-class Americans were able to sock away some money during the pandemic, thanks to these programs but also thanks to the fact there wasn’t much to spend money on during 2020 — no vacations or sporting events or other forms of entertainment.
While economists predict that savings is going to start to run out soon, the question of whether all those women will come rushing back to the labor force remains an open one. In survey after survey, even highly educated women — particularly those with young families — say they prefer part-time work. A study in JAMA from 2019 found that among doctors with kids, 31 percent of women and 5 percent of men worked part-time. Even more interestingly, 64 percent of women have considered changing to part-time compared to only 21 percent of men.
As Scott Yenor recently wrote in City Journal, “The question of what women want has long plagued men. Perhaps we should just ask them. When we do, [their preference] for part-time work is consistent with data in other wealthy western countries. Most women with dependent children don’t want full-time work.”
The women who have considered changing to part-time work might make up a significant chunk of folks who dropped out of the labor force. These women have probably for some time thought about spending more time with their kids and having more flexibility with their jobs while also getting more done at home. But they were never quite ready to take the plunge because of the economic and social consequences. The pandemic afforded them the opportunity to see if they could make it work.
And like many men, women found part-time work or staying at home with their families more fulfilling. For years, folks on the left have derided such choices. But apparently the pandemic may be changing that too. In a column for the New York Times on the “antiwork” movement, Farjad Manjoo writes about his own reconsideration of the focus on work at all costs: “What if paid work is not the only worthwhile use of one’s time? What if crushing it in your career is not the only way to attain status and significance in society? What if electing to live a life that is not driven by the neuroses and obsessions of paid employment is considered a perfectly fine and reasonable way to live?”
Many mothers are likely asking themselves those exact same questions.