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The Economy Has Never Worked For Mothers, And COVID-19 Is Pushing More Women Out Of Work

A graphic of an Asian woman, colored red with a white mask, holding a baby colored yellow, against a blue background.
The pandemic has caused women to leave the workforce as they shoulder more of the responsibility for childcare, virtual learning and domestic work.

In September, 865,000 women left the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eighty percent of the people who stopped working or looking for work that month were women. It’s no coincidence that this large drop out happened around the same time that the fall semester began: data confirms that mothers disproportionately shoulder the burden of childcare, supervising virtual learning and domestic work. 


The disproportionate demands on mothers to provide childcare and home education in this moment are not new, but will have lasting impacts on their careers in both the short and long term. A report from the Center for American Progress estimates the cost of mothers leaving the workforce and reducing their hours to take on unpaid labor to be $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity. There are also longer-term consequences for future earnings, retirement savings and more.


Host Frank Stasio talks to Katherine Goldstein, journalist, host and creator of The Double Shift podcast, about how the pandemic has affected working mothers. Shilpa Phadke and C. Nicole Mason also join the conversation to dig more deeply into what public policies could be implemented to address the inequities for working mothers. Phadke is the vice president of the women’s initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Mason is the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Interview Highlights

Many of the jobs that have been lost are in sectors that were dominated by women, and many of those jobs are not coming back. - C. Nicole Mason

Mason on the pandemic stories that the IWPR is collecting:

We're hearing from women all over the country that they're hanging on by a thread — many have been unemployed for weeks on end, and there's no work in sight. ... So we are hearing stories of women struggling to take care of their families: out of work, housing, food insecurity and just having to make these difficult choices and decisions about being able to provide for their family or to earn a living. And that's just a really impossible situation for many working families and mothers.

Phadke on what sets this economic downturn apart:

This recession is going to be different than any other we've ever had before. This is a service sector recession. Women and women of color are going to be disproportionately harmed. And if we don't really think about big bold change right now, this is going to be a long term problem.

Whether it's the push of the job loss or the pull of the care at home, right now we're really on the brink of losing a generation of women's careers. - Shilpa Phadke

Goldstein on what makes long-standing inequities different during the pandemic:

Because these issues are breaking into larger economic issues, and because fathers are also being more affected, I think we're more effectively making this a man's problem. And therefore, there's more potential for there to be change, rather than this being placed on individual women to figure it out. Men are starting to wake up to these realities as well.

Mason on what is essential in an economic recovery package from Congress:

We need to make sure that a big piece of that is around care and rebuilding or building a solid care infrastructure. Because we know that if schools are not able to open [and] daycares are not able to open, women will continue to exit the workforce. And we're not going to be able to revive our economy in any real way.

Goldstein on the role of cash payments in our economic recovery:

I think we also should be paying parents to stay home and to do virtual school. I think we should be paying all sorts of workers to stay home so we can close more things and get the virus under control. I mean, getting the virus under control is the number one thing that will help our economy. It'll help mothers, It'll help families. It'll help everyone. … But I think longer term, thinking about guaranteed income and an income floor could make a really, really big difference for families.

As a society, we've decided that the direct sort of capitalist enterprise of a thing like a restaurant is more important than getting our children back in school. - Katherine Goldstein

Phadke shares her tempered sense of optimism:

This is the first time we really heard a resounding chorus around valuing care work and really understanding what's happening. But I think it's also time for Congress to do something. Many people have heard that a lot of these provisions that have served [as] Band-Aids over the summer are set to expire at the end of the year. And so as we have workers chasing these elevated levels of unemployment and uncertainty. All the moms and women who are really — their participation in the workforce is depending on childcare and schools being open — and we see the coronavirus cases skyrocketing. So I think I am optimistic, but I am also anxious for congressional action here.

You can read the Institute for Women's Policy Research report on policies for a gender-equitable recovery here.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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