Working parents have been among those most harshly impacted by the pandemic over the past year—and research has shown that women have borne an extremely outsized share of that.
Between February 2020 and 2021, for example, a net 2.4 million women left the workforce entirely—many giving up jobs or looking for employment as they assumed responsibility for increased caregiving in their families. According to one study, 40% of mothers added 15 extra hours of caregiving or more each week last year, on top of what they were already doing.
On this Mother’s Day, I wanted to assess the fallout of this pandemic year, and understand how best to support working mothers as many organizations transition back to the workplace. I spoke with Katherine Goldstein, a journalist who created and hosts The Double Shift podcast and runs workshops on workplace-caregiver issues. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:
How are you feeling about Mother's Day this year?
Personally, I planned the exact Mother's Day that I wanted. I have three children under six, and I believe every mother should get the exact Mother's Day they deserve and need. Any mothers who are reading this that don't get the Mother's Day they want, claim next Sunday and do exactly what you want. That's my advice.
What is the Mother's Day you want?
Two months ago, I booked a post fully vaccinated massage. I'm going with a friend. First massage, and we're having a mom's only wine and cheese picnic after. No children involved or invited.
So that's your personal approach—more broadly how do you feel about it?
More broadly? The personal, financial, career, and psychological losses of this last year for mothers have been truly astounding. And I'm cranky about this holiday because there's this idea that to show mothers we appreciate them, they should have breakfast in bed, or a special gift—some saccharine token of appreciation. When we should really be instead talking about a radical overhaul in how we think about unpaid care work and undervalued care work. Our economy cannot function without all of the unpaid care work of mothers, and yet it gives us no protection or value for what we do. I think it should return to its revolutionary roots, because Mother's Day was actually formulated as a labor holiday.
Are you optimistic that this past year is bringing that conversation to a head in ways that are reflected in policy, business, and societal practice? Or are you concerned that things will just shift back to how they were?
We're at an inflection point, where we don't know how things are about to go. I've been covering social and economic issues facing mothers since 2017. Until 2020, that was seen as an extremely eccentric and niche topic. People like you—men—never asked me anything about this until 2020 or 2021. It's because we now have labor statistic numbers that support this as a crisis. The economy has reached this huge crisis point, and so since 2020 people have started to think about these things more critically; they're starting to realize that our mentality for workers and for mothers who worked outside the home in the paid labor force was—if you have a baby, children, childcare issues, etc., you're on your own. 'Good luck with that.' That's not anybody's problem except yours personally, because this is America. Get with the program, we're not going to help you with anything. There is a much clearer sense now that that never worked; we have to rethink strategically about what workplace responsibilities are to caregivers, and what society's responsibility is to parents.
How would you summarize the impact over the last year on working mothers specifically?
From what I have heard in my reporting and through the conversations that I have had with people—this year has brought a tremendous sense of loss. Especially in the professional realm, because even if people were 'fortunate' enough to keep their jobs and keep their same salaries, or to be able to work from home some portion of that time, the personal toll to maintain that has been great. No one has really accounted, acknowledged, or reckoned with that. To put this in a larger historical context, I think America has a hard time acknowledging our wrongs and moving forward.
We're at a moment where we need to acknowledge what so many mothers have been through, to build better systems and workplaces rather than just saying 'Oh, you know, schools are reopened,' so we don't have to have any more conversations about these things. Or ‘the economy is bouncing back, the labor numbers are better, so everything's fine.’ From some of the stories that I've heard, it's not just lost salary, it's also people working on their dream business plan for two years that has basically died, or being forced out of an industry that you had dedicated 10 years to. It's realizing that the company you thought really had your back did not have your back. There's a lot of trauma in terms of what has happened over the last year in the professional realm.
And the biggest triggers of that are people who either experienced job loss, or the loss of childcare or schooling, or had other caregiving responsibilities that meant it was impossible for them to continue to work at the same cadence?
In the beginning, there was a sense of 'Everything's wild, whenever you can get the work is fine.' But you can't make up your work between 10pm and 2am indefinitely. Maybe you could do that for a week, but that's not a long-term strategy. In white collar offices, there were many companies that had a radical attitude of 'We're not judging you. We know everything is wild, don't worry about it.' But from what I've heard, managers' and companies' 'patience' around some of these issues ran out pretty quickly, and certainly way before there was a return to any normalcy around childcare, school, and other serious disruptive issues.
There was still a sense of, 'Well, people need to get back to work.' There may have been increased resentment especially aimed at mothers, and increased anti-mom bias in who was laid off, who was promoted, etc. We're still gathering data on that. But definitely some of the open-ended support ended very quickly in a way that wasn't holistic about what the realities were.
Do you have a point of view on how companies should consider caregiving obligations in performance reviews and when designing roles?
I'm so excited that people are finally talking about this. First of all, it's really important to think about caregiving responsibilities holistically and to not categorize people as the moms and everyone else, or the parents and everyone else, because that breeds a lot of resentment in workplace culture. Some of the most critical comments that I get about these issues are from women who don't have children, who feel that they are expected to 'pick up the slack' for moms. This is how patriarchy works—women are angry at each other; they're resentful of each other; they're not supporting each other, because they're being unfairly being asked to do something, etc.
Even if you don't have children, most people at some point in their lives are going to have caregiving responsibilities, whether it's a sibling, or their own parents. So rather than saying that moms get special treatment, think holistically about how to design a workplace that's going to support a wide range of life experiences around caregiving. That will actually increase the diversity pool of who will want to work for you. Especially as people try to get people with unconventional backgrounds or underrepresented racial groups, thinking about family and caregiving in a different way could also help groups other than your stereotypical white male office worker feel more supported in a company.
From the perspective of working mothers, what do you make of the hybrid work and flexible work approaches that are emerging?
It's a great conversation that needs to be had with a lot of intention. Many people have realized how it's possible to be productive and collaborative in hybrid workspaces, and are becoming more and more comfortable with that. That is potentially good for supporting people with a lot of different work needs. There were whole companies like Power to Fly dedicated to remote tech worker moms who wanted to be able to work from home. These economies were emerging already.
What I really would like is for companies to actually start asking people what will work for them. Of course it isn't every company, but a lot of times there's a sense that leadership knows what's best. They might make an edict of 'Everyone work from home Tuesday and Thursday, while Monday and Wednesday are mandatory in-office.' Maybe they're not really plugged into the fact that public school is not back on Wednesdays. Someone who feels like they don't have a lot of power in the organization has to put that out there—this isn't going to work for me. They may feel really alone in that, or it may cause a lot of unnecessary stress. So having open-ended conversations with people about what is working and what isn't working, in terms of hybrid, is really important.
One trap that people or companies fall into is saying big things, like 'Take the time you need,' or 'If you aren't able to, just make up the time later.' But then there's no transparency among the leadership about what they're doing, if they are really taking the time that they need, so other people feel like they can't actually do that. What does that even mean? Today, before I got on this call with you–I have baby twins, and we thought one of them swallowed a button battery. I was at the ER today before I did this call with you. Those hours are gone. I work for myself, but if I worked for someone else then those hours are just gone, they're gone. No one's getting them back. So listen to what people want and then make clear policies rather than just saying, 'Do what works for you. Do what hours work for you.' Because that creates this 24/7 explanation that has been killer for so many caregivers and mothers.
Thanks for keeping this time to speak, given how your day has started. It reminds me of taking my baby son to the emergency room years ago, when he swallowed glass...
See, I was transparent about this story and through that, I learned that you have children too, and that you can relate to this. If we work together, that's something that builds trust in a workplace.
With flexible schedules, there's a shift to focusing on output, as opposed to time; you can do your work whenever, as long as you get it done. That seems like it could be amazing for working parents. What's your take?
It's really industry based. One thing that is tough is if your company does anything client-facing, you can have a progressive work policy but the client is always right. That overrides everything, unless you have strong boundaries with your clients, which is another potential workplace revolution. Or you can say this team does it this way, that's the policy, but then the manager says, 'I really like doing my emails at 11pm. You don't have to respond.' But then at 7:30am they email you again to say, 'Did you get this?'
This is an exciting time for experimentation. Output-based metrics rather than time-based metrics—I'm excited about that for moms. Because if you want something done, give it to a busy working mother. These are some of the most effective, productive, on-it people that companies should really covet. But they've looked down on this group because they though, 'They want to leave at 4:30. They aren't a serious worker.' Well, it's because they got all their work done by 2:30, you idiot. They're not spending time on Facebook, or whatever. So there is something very exciting about this experimentation, but I'm not ready to declare one way or the other as the best.
We just did a survey of people who are in charge of the return to work, and their top concern was whether managers had adequate support in training. That's been a recurring theme over the year: managers struggle to provide adequate feedback and appreciation during remote work. Listening to you, it strikes me that good training of managers to support working parents is probably ultimately the most critical thing. It's something that we can't take for granted.
No. At least in the industry that I worked in for a long time, media, there's no management training. It was just that if you got a promotion, you managed people—there was no training. You're good at your job, so therefore you're in charge of other people. But those are different things. Obviously some companies are starting to think about this more seriously, but the reality is that everyone alive on planet earth has experienced some form of trauma in the last year. That is going to manifest itself in a lot of ways. Managers need a new level of emotional sensitivity; they probably always needed it, but it's more important now than ever before.
A good manager has to have some skills of a therapist. Obviously they don't have to be therapists, but we need to be talking about that as a really valuable skill. Many people may be familiar with the idea of the office mom—it's often a woman, often a mom, and they come to this person with their problems. They're expecting her to intuit the emotional needs of the office, and that she makes sure that everyone's birthday is remembered. That work has been completely unseen and uncompensated. So there's a moment now to say that emotional work should be seen and praised in in performance reviews, cultivated in others, and be part of the job. If 20% of someone's time is not in their job description and it is helping people deal with their coworkers, that is an actual skill that is helping the company.
With the economy is starting to rebound, is this a moment where working mothers will have increased power and opportunity?
I'm not sure. Most working mothers are actually not working at white-collar jobs, which is an important point to remember. I would love that, but I also feel like we've had a rampant problem of anti-mom bias and motherhood penalties, especially in white-collar workforces before the pandemic. Many times these labor numbers just don't have a lot of nuance. People may be getting jobs, but mothers who were forced out of the workforce may be at a less senior place. They're making less money. Maybe they're not looking for work, but they have not recovered to their previous levels of earning or seniority.
Many mothers have during this time left the labor force. If they're no longer looking for work, they're no longer being counted in those numbers. So to fully understand the picture, we're going to have to wait to make sure schools are five days a week in the fall. Until we know that, there's going to be a lot of uncertainty about what the trajectory is going to be for mothers. I would love to see more kinds of unionizing, collective bargaining, and people standing up for caregivers. The most effective way I've seen that done, especially pre-pandemic, was groups of women getting together and demanding policy change. Erin Grau is an example of someone who did that at The New York Times. This is a tremendous opportunity for people to band together with their coworkers and not say, 'One person wants this,' but 'These seven essential people who are really crucial to our business are saying you have to change this.' That's a powerful way to create workplace changes.
Will changes to business travel and reduced commuting burdens be significant for working mothers?
There are some really cool possibilities. People have realized that they may not need to go in person for that meeting or that conference, and that can definitely take off the burden. Personally, I'm a bit looking forward to business travel, to get away from my family and stay in a hotel. But it's not going to be seen as you having no commitment because you want to do this over Zoom rather than take two days to fly here. For fathers as well, I think that there has been a reset of that. Do I really want to spend all this time on airplanes, when I was missing so much of my kids' upbringing? Many people have undergone a values reset during this time about what their priorities really are.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.