Coronavirus will erase progress in gender equality unless we act now

Coronavirus will erase progress in gender equality unless we act now
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Media articles about the dire child care situation for working parents have been popping up. Some speak to parental exhaustion. Some highlight the unequal burden carried by mothers. However, we are still faced with a lack of concrete solutions to mitigate some gender inequalities this pandemic has exposed. I am worried about the children, but I am also worried about the echoing silence of the impending impact on the careers of women as they “lean out” to care for children during this national crisis.

The coronavirus has exposed a problem in our society, and mothers need a sustainable solution. My own research shows that moms were more than 50 percent more likely to take work leave in early closure states compared to late closure states, with no effect on fathers or women without children. Mothers are sensitive to child care availability and cost, and the pandemic is having an uneven chilling effect on the future of mothers when it comes to equality, employment, and empowerment. Many mothers may attempt to cobble together a haphazard child care solution for the fall, however, it should not be this way. Exercising the right to work and to earn economic independence should not be so hard. It is a human rights issue.

For any society to grow and prosper overtime, it must reproduce at some level, at a minimum to replace workers but, more importantly, to keep the human race alive. For the multitude of reasons, women disproportionately bear the brunt of time intensive unpaid labor involved with child birth and child care to keep society afloat. Recognizing such a reality and providing support that helps women stay engaged during and well after child birth is the very least we can do to mitigate the effect this has on their careers, economic independence, as well as professional advancements.

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How can we help mothers? Child care is and will always be an essential need. It has perhaps never been more broadly apparent that a universal system for child care is necessary to mitigate the unequal challenges to labor force participation faced by mothers. In the short run, subsidies for child care providers and schools must be developed so they can survive under social distancing guidelines. We must temporarily relax licensing requirements to allow for staff increases at both child care centers and schools, and the development of more home child care centers.

In the long run, parents need equal access to universal and subsidized high quality child care, as well as schools that provide activities before and after school so kids can stay engaged and safe during full working hours. This alone will move mountains to mitigate the uneven effect on the engagement of mothers with the labor market, notably low income and single mothers who still struggle to reach full employment.

Even if we lack the political will to support universal child care along with an extended school hours agenda, employers can act independently. They can actively recruit employees who are parents to help craft solutions for working parents within their organizations. They can increase and expand paid leave to cover child care needs. They can provide child care for their work locations. Leading by example, men executives can openly take time off to care for their own children to show employees that child care is not only an issue for women and to normalize the behavior for men.

The fact of the matter is that moms make great employees. We are skilled multitaskers with an ability to manage the most complex of situations. We are warriors who have survived the most vexing circumstances. Our ability to be productive in the labor market has been proven time and time again. Society would be well served to invest in programs that make it easier for women to engage in full employment without the current daily struggles associated with finding affordable high quality child care that have been made even worse and more severe during the coronavirus era.

Americans are all in this together. Both men and women have families and raise children. This pandemic has been brutal, exposing vulnerabilities to the constructs we live under in society. This gives us an opportunity to do better. Even if kids go back to school in the fall, we need sustainable child care solutions. It should not take a national crisis to reveal the problem of balancing family life with the work and the careers for women. Where this country ends up at the end of the pandemic in terms of gender equality in the labor market and at home depends on whether we choose to blissfully ignore this key child care issue or consciously tackle it head on.

Misty Heggeness is a principal economist and senior adviser for the United States Census Bureau. She was a visiting scholar with the Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute of the Federal Reserve over the past year. These views expressed above are her own and not the views of these institutions.