COVID-19: For Women It’s One Step Forward, 30 Steps Back

We came across an interesting study by Dr. Gema Zamarro and her colleagues entitled “Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19”. Dr. Zamarro is a Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

We invited  Dr. Zamarro to discuss how the research brief findings are relevant to working women. Below are her responses.

Why is your topic important to study? 
The current COVID-19 crisis has the potential to drastically magnify gender gaps in terms of both childcare arrangements and work. With its social-distancing requirements, the COVID-19 pandemic had its biggest effect on more female-dominated sectors of the service industry and as a result, in contrast to other economic crises that affected more male employment, female employment suffered at least as much as male employment during this time.

Childcare needs soared as schools and daycare centers closed around the country in March 2020. We know from prior research that women already carried a heavier load than men in the provision of childcare before the crisis and that childcare arrangements are crucial determinants of female labor supply. As a result, the current crisis could represent a step back in terms of gender equality in the labor market. Differences in the prevalence of psychological distress during this COVID-19 crisis could have important longer-term implications, not only for the health of mothers, but also for their children’s health and development.

What did you find when investigating this topic?
We used rich, nationally representative, tracking survey data collected every two weeks during the COVID-19 crisis through the USC Dornsife Center for Economic Research Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey. We found important gender differences in childcare arrangements of school-age children in the household. Among working mothers, 1 out of 3 reported being the only provider of care for their school-age children, as compared to 1 out of 10 working fathers. Working mothers were 17 percentage points more likely than working fathers to become the sole provider of childcare even when they were not initially. Also, mothers appeared to provide more childcare despite their current working status.

Childcare arrangements are in turn associated with changes in working hours and lower levels of employment attachment. College-educated mothers were significantly more likely to report that they had to reduce their working hours during the COVID-19 crisis. The identification among women as the sole provider of childcare in the household was also associated with a higher probability of transitioning out of employment by 5 percentage points.

We also documented a new gap in psychological distress that emerged between mothers and women without school-age children in the household in early April.

What are 3 important action steps that working women can use in their lives?
These are difficult times for working mothers. As a mother of two kids (7 and 9 years old), I struggle to keep up with my work while taking care of my children and helping them with their remote learning. My hope with doing this work is to raise awareness of the difficulties of working parents, and in particular working mothers, during this crisis. I hope employers and colleagues get a better understanding of this situation and help support working parents.

“My hope … is to raise awareness of the difficulties of working parents, and in particular working mothers, during this crisis.”

I encourage working women to open up about their struggles and to support each other. I am fortunate to have a husband who is also working from home. We’re able to coordinate and ensure we both have time to focus on work while the other is in charge of childcare and school duties. I hope by opening up about their struggles working mothers can find the support they need. I also hope they can find time for self-care as the mental health effects of this crisis could have important longer-term consequences.

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