Why is Mommy So Stressed?

The pandemic has been tough on all of us, but it has hit working moms extra hard. Dr. Misty Heggeness, Principal Economist and Sr. Advisor for Evaluation & Experiments at the US Census Bureau, sees it clearly in the stats. We talked to her about the impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce, how gender equality is impacting our health – and what we need to do to move mountains for working women.

Dr. Heggeness shared her thoughts on her working paper entitled, “Why is Mommy so Stressed? Estimating the Immediate Impact of the COVID-19 Shock on Parental Attachment to the Labor Market and the Double Bind of Mothers”.

Why is your topic important to study? 

Our society has yet to achieve gender equality in many aspects of life including wages and earnings, childcare responsibilities, and household chores. Recent literature on the gender wage gap highlights a connection between the heavy burden of the private sphere of women’s lives (such as domestic work and childcare) on inequality in the labor market. COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and school shutdowns forced people back into their homes – where childcare, meal-making, and other tasks increased. How families chose to delegate those tasks and rebalance everything tells us something about gendered norms in society today. While the pandemic has been a traumatic experience, it provided an opportunity to examine (with a little more rigor) how traditional gender roles and responsibilities in our private lives play out in our work lives and impact our ability to succeed and advance in that space. It’s important to use these “opportunities” to conduct unbiased studies that can isolate the actual effect of external factors that create shifts in household work on formal work outside the home; if we are ever going to achieve gender equality, we need to understand what areas of our life affect and influence this inequality so we can take action in those spaces.

“My biggest pet peeve is … we consider the challenges of childcare and women’s work a private matter when, in fact, it is a huge societal problem.”

What did you find when investigating this topic? 

I examined the immediate impact, or shock, of state stay-at-home orders and school shutdowns on parent’s labor supply. I looked at six indicators: detachment (exiting) from the labor market, unemployment, personal leave, hours worked, hourly wages, and weekly earnings. I used state-level variation in the timing of shutdowns to tease out specific effects on women’s labor supply in states that closed early compared to states that closed late or not at all. While I found no immediate impact on detachment or unemployment, I did find interesting results on personal leave and hours worked. I found that mothers were 53% more likely to take leave in early closure states compared to mothers in late closure states. There was no effect on fathers or on women without children. I also found that mothers with a non-working spouse in their household who continued working increased their work hours by 5%. There was no effect on hours worked for mothers living with a working spouse or mothers not living with a spouse. The immediate shock of the increased domestic responsibilities of childcare either forced mothers to take leave from work or increase their work hours. These effects were specific to mothers.

What are 3 important action steps that working women can use in their lives? 

My results, combined with some of the other recent literature on this topic, suggest a couple of action items that could move mountains for working women. (1) Encourage dads and the men who work with you to take on additional household work and childcare tasks in order to equalize gender equality within households. Encourage male executive leaders to lead by example to normalize parental responsibilities of men within the workplace. (2) Advocate to policymakers and your legislators to take action and implement public policies that provide affordable and comprehensive childcare coverage for all. (3) Talk with your friends, coworkers, and influencers in society about the struggles working mothers face.

My biggest pet peeve is that we try to problem solve by ourselves or we consider the challenges of childcare and women’s work a private matter when, in fact, it is a huge societal problem. If COVID-19 has given us anything, it’s that it has exposed the challenges we still face in our society related to gender inequalities. It’s about time we move those challenges out of our private lives and into the public domain. We need to look for smart solutions that will not only help us, but also the generations of working women that follow.

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