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As a country, we’ve made monumental and historic strides around the value of women at work. Women, now more than ever, are demanding their voices be heard in almost every industry, highlighting the pay disparity on a consistent rotation for the world to see.
But 2020 threw everyone a curveball with COVID-19. The global pandemic has finally given light to racial, gender and socio-economic disparities, which has impacted every marginalized group — from healthcare to housing. It is difficult to ignore the images of people lined up for hours at food banks and local grocery stores just to get basic food items. There were moments when I thought, “Is this the United States of America?” as I questioned how the wealthiest country in the world could not supply citizens with toilet paper.
The Labor Department says more than 700,000 jobs were eliminated in the first wave of pandemic layoffs in March. Nearly 60 percent of those jobs were held by women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “Since February 2020, women have lost over 8 million net jobs, accounting for 55 percent of overall net job loss since the start of the pandemic. …While some jobs have returned, many women are not working the hours they want or need.” With all of the political chatter about economic recovery, the narrative does not describe the new reality that 41 percent of women are facing — The Motherhood Recession.
Mothers of school-aged children are especially challenged with schools exploring various hybrid, mixed or remote learning models for students for the 2020/2021 school year. This regressive impact of the global pandemic will adversely affect working mothers, who finally earned a seat at the table, as they juggle the new role as the home-school support team.
Dr. Laura Sherbin, an economist and managing director of [email protected], a division of Working Mother Media, estimates that Coronavirus-related anxiety will cost the economy $341 billion. As the United States is facing a rarely highlighted childcare crisis, if women are forced to care for their children, they are unfairly sacrificing their careers. Should women unfairly be punished for leaving the workplace to care for their children during a historic crisis? It is a difficult question to answer and a hard reality to face. Adding to the pressure of economic uncertainty, working mothers will have to find a way to balance their ambitions with familial responsibilities, which often falls on women.
The economy cannot rebound with 41 percent of the labor force unable to seek childcare and forced school closures. Although the country is discussing the economic recovery, what happens to the mothers who are scared about the possibility of starting over in their careers “if” they can start over?
We have all lived in a bubble of man-made perfection, where working from home meant you had a designated office area that was tranquil and efficient. Most notable, BBC News contributor Robert Kelly, became a viral superstar in 2017 when both of his children interrupted his perfectly scripted segment while he was live on air. Three years later, the network aired a story entitled, “Robert Kelly, whose kids crashed BBC interview, talks about working from home,” where he shared a day in the life of a working dad. Although we all laughed at that adorable unscripted moment, there would have been a double standard if the same thing happened to a woman. The level of judgment would have been “she can’t control her kids,” or “she is not taking this opportunity seriously.”
It’s not that working mothers do not want to go back to work. It’s that there are limited childcare options available to ensure they can return to work. For many working women, their career represents a part of their identity. The issue that politicians, employers and decision-makers continue to ignore is that women realize they can have it all, maybe not all at the same time. However, they do not want to be forced to start over due to unforeseen circumstances out of their control.
Here is how we can all participate to ensure working mothers are not left behind in a post-COVID-19 society.
Project-based work models
The traditional 9 to 5 isn’t ideal for working mothers who are juggling school-aged children without after-school sports or childcare. Today, I am juggling remote learning with my teenage son while running my company via Zoom, and it is a real challenge, even with help. By creating date-specific workflows, it gives me the flexibility to support my child with assignments, while remaining on target with stakeholders.
Consider a project-based approach, which will incorporate a broader consideration of the lives of parents, who are struggling to get to that 9 am Zoom meeting. The project-based approach will give working mothers the time to create an agenda to incorporate her personal life with her career goals.
Focus on mental health
In a recent study, mothers with young children are experiencing three- to five-fold increases in self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of Lean In, about the state of Black women in corporate America. She says women are taking on an additional 21 hours per week, on average, of domestic work in addition to their actual career work.
The increase of parental mental illness is a crisis caused by the pandemic due to the new level of support parents are providing to their children. In fact, children are processing the same stress factors as adults as we continue to raise their anxiety about the health risks of social interaction. Remember, mothers who are now forced to forgo their professional ambitions to go back to the primary childcare provider role(s) are also juggling the worry of their children while balancing their own angst about the pandemic. The news and endless barrage of negative information can take a toll on your level of anxiety and lead to depression.
Start your Zoom meetings with empathy, compassion and a mental health check-up. Working mothers truly miss their colleagues and the value of their careers. Watch for the signs of overwhelm and stress, and remind them that the company does advocate for wellness at all times.
Ask for their feedback
My company works with women daily who are beginning to underestimate the value of their work and contributions because they are no longer in the office. I recently spoke to an executive, who mentioned that her boss always places her on mute during Zoom meetings because of her toddler screaming in the background, which made her feel isolated from the team.
Remember, life happens. Mothers apologize for the actions of their children in public organically due to shame. If you consistently mute your team, you are muting the voices of mothers, who are focusing on multiple events simultaneously. Ask them for their opinions regardless of what she is juggling in the background.
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