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Workforce equality could take step back as mothers balance work and child care
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Workforce equality could take step back as mothers balance work and child care

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An already existing child care crisis compounded by online schooling in many school districts could harm women’s careers, widen the gender pay gap and reduce the number of women serving in business leadership roles, some experts predict.

“You basically have to have a parent who can put aside their work,” said Aimee Drolet, an advocate at Disability Rights who cut her hours to part-time after schools closed this spring.

She is continuing with that reduced schedule as the school year starts to take care of her blended family, which includes four children with the oldest going into 10th grade and the youngest starting first grade.

She said there was “no way” she could work full time and manage her kids.

“I think it’s an exhausting enterprise,” Drolet said.

For families that must weigh how to take care of the children while they’re at home during typical work hours, it is often mothers who step back from paid work.

Research published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization found that, in heterosexual relationships where both parents work, mothers with young children were four to five times more likely to leave work or reduce hours following the start of the pandemic than fathers with young children.

No good options: As virus rages, working parents face tough choices

Career impacts

Taking this time off could drastically affect a woman’s career growth, said Tessa Conroy, a UW-Extension economic development specialist who studies gender.

“When women leave the workforce, even temporarily, it can be harder to get back into a job,” Conroy said. “The momentum that is built in the early years of a career can potentially be derailed.”

Even if women aren’t fully leaving jobs, but instead taking time off or cutting back on hours, they might still be less likely to be chosen for higher positions because of typical workplace expectations, said Wisconsin School of Business professor emerita Patricia Mullins, who studied work-life balance.

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“The more you take off ... the harder it becomes to show yourself as dedicated,” Mullins said.

Women leaving work and staying home to care for children will not likely cause a long-term decline of women in the workforce, UW-Extension economic development specialist Steven Deller said, because employers are dependent on women, who now make up just more than half the workforce nationwide.

But, Deller said, the time off for child care could lead to a decrease in promotions for women and, subsequently, a widening of the gender pay gap.

When reviewing job applicants, managers disfavor candidates without continuous employment, Deller said.

“There’s an implicit bias, when you see that gap in employment,” Deller said.

Child care crisis

While the rising cost of child care has long been seen by lawmakers as a women’s issue or family issue, it is now being seen as a broader issue facing economic and workforce stability as well, Conroy said.

Employers may start focusing on child care benefits to attract or keep employees as well, Conroy said.

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Major Dane County employers, such as CUNA Mutual Group and American Family Insurance, are continuing to allow employees to work from home, and are allowing parents to shift their work schedules or pare back hours to work part-time to care for children.

Hard choices

For real estate agent Jamie Miller, there aren’t options to work from home — she has to work in-person with clients who are selling and buying homes. While her husband works from home and can be the responsible guardian for the kids while she is working with clients, Miller said she will still have to take on fewer clients this year because of the responsibility of child care.

“There is just not enough time in the day when you’re juggling kids and work,” Miller said. “You have to be mom and teacher and professional.”

Miller and her husband are financially stable, she said, though they will have to rework their budget for her reduced income.

“It’s about adjusting expectations,” she said.

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Elizabeth Aronoff, who was laid off in March from her job as a technical writer for SubZero, spent the spring trying to help her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter with their online schooling while her husband worked from their home in Stoughton.

Aronoff said she won’t seek a full-time job yet, instead opting to find freelance work to maintain a flexible schedule to manage child care.

“The way our lives are ... I just don’t feel like I can work full time,” Aronoff said. “As long as the pandemic is going we’re just limping along, trying to get through the next month.”

Aronoff thinks kids will get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their 2020 grades. She’s not sure about women.

“Are women going to be afforded the same courtesy if they have a big gap in employment?” she said. “If they stay on reduced hours, is that going to hurt them?”

State Journal reporter Chris Hubbuch contributed to this report.

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