The Pandemic Is Weighing Heavily On Working Mothers

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The majority of Massachusetts women work outside the home with over 60% in the labor force as of 2017, according to the state. Only now, in the midst of this global pandemic, many of them are working in the home. And even if they aren't working in the home, the kids are in the home, school is in the home, family members who need care and attention are in the home. It is proving to be an impossible bind, one that the data shows women face more significantly than men.

The fall promises little relief with the majority of the state's schools returning at least partially online and 30% going fully online at the start, and the pressure is on to increase the amount of time kids are spending learning at home. There are real costs to this crunch for income, families, career, relationships, mental health.

We take listener calls with Mara Bolis, associate director of Women's Economic Rights, Gender Justice & Inclusion Hub for Oxfam America, and Tania Del Rio, executive director for the Mayor's Office of Women's Advancement. We also check in with Mikeya Kirksey, a single mother from Dorchester who works in homeless services, on how she's balanced work and her two kids during the pandemic.

Conversation Highlights

Tiziana Dearing: What is happening for working women during this pandemic?

Mara Bolis: "So my fear is that during this pandemic, we are falling into accepted patterns that women should shoulder the continued uncertainty around school and daycare availability. You know, women traditionally have been seen as the default providers of care for their families. This is work that is invisible and that is assumed. The coronavirus pandemic has made that work fantastically visible at this point. And now it's up to us as a society to see how we're going to support women and position them for success. And if we don't, I think we're going to see widespread attrition of women from the workforce. And that's already happening, right? In April alone, there was research from the National Women's Law Center that showed that the entire decade, entire prior decade's workforce gains were lost in April alone. And this is happening globally. This isn't just happening in the U.S. This is a global problem.

"Women traditionally have been seen as the default providers of care for their families. This is work that is invisible and that is assumed. The coronavirus pandemic has made that work fantastically visible at this point."

Mara Bolis

"So it's really the time to show leadership within our within our companies that employ women workers, within our households in terms of men chipping in, within employers supporting men to be doing more around the house and within our government agencies to be allowing for paid leave, for all flexible scheduling and other benefits that are going to make this work for women to stay in the workforce."

Tania Del Rio: "In the past, like in our last recession, we saw men's employment being more severely affected than women. And that's not what we're seeing now. We're seeing larger impact on sectors that have high female employment. And also, we have women being more exposed to to the health risks of COVID because they are disproportionately represented in essential worker categories. So it's having a large impact also in that way. ...Caretakers are really in a no win situation because their employers seem to have an expectation of similar output in terms of work as pre-COVID. But they're providing really few to no accommodations for employees who have children or caretaking responsibilities for an elder family member or someone who's sick. And at the same time, these caretakers who are, again, mostly women, are fearful of losing their jobs. So they're trying to keep their work output stable. They obviously have a large, larger responsibility now with caretaking. And so what gives?"

Dearing: What have things been like for you as a single working mom since March?

Mikeya Kirksey: "It's been very overwhelming. Really trying to navigate through this pandemic with two kids and work. I actually have to go into the office. It's been very hectic just trying to figure out how to do things. ... At one point, when it was still very overwhelming, I decided to send my children to my family that live in Maryland. They stayed there for two months just so I can kinda get a breath and try to bring some some sort of normal to my life and their life during that time. ... My oldest son was actually excited about it because, you know, we weren't doing anything, they weren't going anywhere, they were really stuck in a house. I would have people come to them. My youngest son, he cried the first day and I was really emotional, but I knew that this was the best plan for us — not only for my well-being, but for theirs, because I'm working in the shelter."

Dearing: I know the boys are back, so now that summer's over and a new school year is right around the corner, what are you going to do?

Kirksey: "My oldest son, I'm comfortable with him being home and being able to do his school work remotely. My younger son, however, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. Again, some of my community, from my church family, Table, they are thinking about starting the kindergarten program, so maybe I can send him there for three days. And he did get a seat with BPS for kindergarten or K-1, but ... I did just hear you guys say that teachers are rallying now to not have kids go into school, which I understand. But if they're not, for people like me who are essential workers and have to go into the office and may not have full community or full family here, there has to be some other options. I do know I looked into Boys and Girls Club. They're offering the program ... but they're charging for it. So I don't think it's fair to have to come to work and then pay for my son to go to school where he actually had a seat in another school, you know. So I don't have a plan yet."

"Their contributions are so significant. I dare say our economy rests on their backs and the compensation does not reflect the value they're creating."

Mara Bolis

Dearing: What do men need to do in this moment? Because this is going to have economic impact on all of us if we can't figure out how to fix the structures that are being exposed by this pandemic.

Bolis: "I think an aspect that's been absolutely critical is the fact that we can work from home — and that's a privilege that isn't afforded to many Americans. ... What we've seen in the research that's done in by Promundo, [an organization specializing in masculinity studies], is that men often don't take the workplace accommodations that they're afforded because they're worried that they'll be penalized by their employers and made to feel that they're not serious about their jobs. So men need to help, but employers need to message the flexibility and the empathy that's so required during this time in order to allow them to do so and do so successfully."

Del Rio: "I normally like to say that we call on men who are in heterosexual relationships to take on more of the work in the private sphere: housework, care for children, care for elders, because this frees up women to engage more fully in their pursuits, especially professional ones, and how leadership at the institutional level is so important. So in our case at City Hall, we have Mayor Walsh and making these explicit invitations, inviting their employers to take advantage of all the resources that are being made available to us from like mental health assistance through the employee assistance programs, but also tools for managers to tell us that we need to adjust these expectations and essentially act like the employers that were just talked about with understanding and with compassion, and understanding that this is an unprecedented situation."

Dearing: Any closing thoughts to share? 

Del Rio: "I'm going to say that as a nation, we undervalue care work and economic decision making. This was evidenced by the fact that the entire childcare industry in this nation got less CARES Act funding than Delta Airlines."

Bolis: "I will follow it with the call for action, because we yes, we call on everybody to value the work of women of color, especially those who are from care work. Their contributions are so significant. I dare say our economy rests on their backs and the compensation does not reflect the value they're creating."

This article was originally published on August 19, 2020.

This segment aired on August 19, 2020.


Paris Alston Host, Consider This
Paris Alston was WBUR's host of the Consider This podcast and a former producer for Radio Boston.


Zoë Mitchell Producer and Studio Director
Zoë Mitchell was a Radio Boston producer and studio director.


Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



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