As the pandemic rages and efforts to contain it seem to inch forward, we are seeing its disproportionate impact on women—above all, working mothers, who are bearing the brunt of altered school schedules and remote learning. Indeed, the nation is having its first “she-cession.” How the country responds should go to the heart of how we begin to rethink the work of the future.
According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs in the pandemic-induced recession—nearly 1 million more than among men. The job losses in December were particularly bleak. That month, though men actually gained about 16,000 jobs, 156,000 women lost theirs, resulting in an overall job loss of 140,000. Also, according to the National Women’s Law Center, roughly 154,000 Black women left the workforce in December, the largest one-month drop in their labor force size since the pandemic hit.
An earlier report from CAP report estimates that losing this talent could cost the United States $64.5 billion a year in lost wages and related economic activity. The effects are economic and personal. Recent news reports say 40 percent of new mothers cite symptoms of depression, and 72 percent report moderate-to-high anxiety.
The pandemic’s effects are severe on higher-income, well-educated mothers who can work from home. But for low-income mothers, the pandemic has tightened the vise between work and parenthood. Inflexible work hours and a lack of affordable child care can leave these mothers torn between working and caring for their children. Desperate attempts to address this issue—such as letting a child play alone in a park during a shift at McDonald’s—have led to consequences from fines and arrests to losses of child custody.
Policymakers reflexively think of the steps they can take to reduce care obligations on working mothers to allow them to get back to their “real work” as wage-earners in the economy. Yet, we are entering an age in which technology and artificial intelligence are redefining all kinds of work. Virtually any predictable, replicable task—mental or physical—can be performed by a smart machine. The human element, the dimension of work that differentiates straightforward task completion from a more complex and demanding job, requires knowledge and skills that machines will never have—capacities such as empathy, compassion, personal interaction, nuanced communication, creativity.
Attributes such as these are increasingly important to worker success—so much so that jobs and careers soon will consist overwhelmingly, perhaps solely, of human work: the work that cannot be automated away.
In American society, no one is better at such work than caregivers. Working mothers make the case. Day in and day out, they combine the empathy, compassion, and interpersonal skills required to care for, teach, and respond to the ever-growing needs of children from toddlers to adolescents. Working daughters, wives, sisters and other female relatives deploy these talents with elders and other adults needing assistance to live their lives fully.
Empathy and compassion are certainly not restricted to women, but they have become gendered in a gendered and patriarchal society. We can and must insist that caregiving is for people of all genders, opening up traditional women’s jobs to men and valuing the men who have the courage to take them. Still, it is necessary to recognize that right now the burden of uncompensated and undervalued caregiving falls on women.
We should be creating more room for mothers to stay in the workforce in whatever way they desire by valuing the time they are spending on care as part of the essential work that society needs. This could mean subsidizing firms that continue to pay working mothers for part-time work at full-time rates until the pandemic is under control.
Many working mothers also provide care for pay, as health care workers, child care workers, or home health aides. These service-oriented positions—typically low-wage, and often filled by Black and Hispanic mothers—are underpaid and under-appreciated, even as they are deemed “essential” during a crisis. Let’s build on this recognition by no longer dismissing these occupations as “women’s work,” by increasing their wages and benefits, and providing more time for these working mothers to care for their own families.
Work should be also judged objectively—not by the gender of the person who’s doing it, but on the knowledge, skills, and human capacities required to do it well. Why, as journalist Anna Louie Sussman recently asked, should a nursing home aid be paid so much less than a corrections officer, when both jobs “are physically exhausting, emotionally demanding, and stressful?
People who care for others must continually adapt to the needs of individuals they cared for, the very opposite of predictable, replicable tasks. The skills required in these jobs—skills that enable complex, nuanced personal interactions—are increasingly important in our service-oriented economy. What’s more, they’re transferable to other forms of human work.
We must recognize and properly reward the development of these uniquely human traits and help workers develop and apply them in a growing range of jobs and careers. Federal and state policies should underscore education and training programs in careers disproportionately pursued by women, recognizing we have not yet realized our ideals. These human work-centered skill enhancements can complement other policies that emphasize the life experiences of working mothers—including expanding access to affordable child and elder care, underscoring just pay for women, and strengthening health and safety protections for workers.
The irony today is work deemed “essential” to human survival during a pandemic is the worst paid and considered the least prestigious in the absence of a public health emergency. The care and teaching of children who are now confined to home is essential to the future of our society. It’s time to start thinking about this work much differently and to accord it the value it is due.