More than a third of working moms are passing on pay and opportunities.
Family & Relationships The Small Ways Working Moms Are Scaling Back Will Cost Them Nearly $2 Trillion
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Overwhelmed and exhausted, more than one-third of moms have turned down promotions, switched to part-time work or asked for less job responsibility.
Robin Harris isn’t sure if she ever wants to go back to full-time work.
A mom of two and sales account manager for a coffee roaster in Portland, OR, she scaled back to 24 hours a week last summer when she realized she couldn’t enroll her boys, 13 and 9, in camp as usual. Since the fall, when her sons returned to remote schooling, she’s been a part-time employee, part-time Zoom chaperone.
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“There’s starting to be rumblings of ‘When can you come back?’” she says of her employer. “I don’t know that I will. I don’t really want to. I don’t feel like I have, frankly, the mental bandwidth to do it.”
Robin is far from alone. A survey of 367 working mothers, conducted by Seramount’s Insights division (formerly Working Mother Media), adds to a growing body of evidence that many moms—running on fumes during a pandemic that has—have taken their proverbial foot off the gas pedal when it comes to their career. More than one-third (34 percent) of moms said they already had, or were very or extremely likely to in the next nine months, take an action that would essentially put their job growth on pause.
And while the individual impact of part-time work or turning down a promotion might seem small, collectively these actions will cost working moms almost $2 trillion, says one economist.
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“Assuming, on the conservative end, that moms who step back are losing an average of $5,000 this year from the effect of these behaviors—keep in mind that the usual raise for a promotion is 10 percent of a worker's salary and that moms who switch to part-time work are losing many thousands of dollars—you’re looking at a massive loss over time,” says Laura Sherbin, Ph.D., SVP and head of consulting at Seramount.
That’s because moms aren’t just losing that $5,000. “It compounds through the course of your career,” Sherbin explains. “Assuming most working moms have about 30 years left in their career, $5,000 compounds into $268,000, and based on the number of moms in the workforce, it gets to an extraordinary number in collective loss.”
The pauses moms are taking, according to the survey, included resigning without securing a new role (5 percent), asking for a different position with less responsibility (5 percent), looking or applying for a new position with less responsibility (15 percent), asking for a part-time schedule (8 percent), asking for a reduction in work responsibilities (8 percent), declining or not applying for a promotion (8 percent), volunteering for a furlough (5 percent) or taking a sabbatical (5 percent).
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The online survey was conducted January 15 to 27, 2021, and is the third caregiver survey that Seramount’s Insights division has undertaken since the start of the pandemic.
“There’s no way I can make this work.”
In the past year, news coverage has largely focused on the moms who were. Nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February and October 2020, according to analysis from the . Since moms who leave the labor force have a hard time reentering at the same salary, the pandemic stands to set women’s progress in the workforce back by decades. A in partnership with W20, a policy recommendation engagement group of the G20, found that it will take 51 years longer to reach global gender equality because of the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women—putting the milestone 150 years away from now.
The pandemic will also exacerbate the wage gap. Currently, women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man, but economists caution that COVID could widen that gap by as much as 5 percentage points, so that the average female worker will earn about 76 cents for every dollar the average male worker makes, according to an August 2020 report by the by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
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That massive drop in women’s labor force participation only tells part of the story, Sherbin warns.
Plenty of research shows there are also compounding costs when women stay at their job but take a step back, by reducing their responsibilities or actual work hours. That’s because, in some cases, it reduces their actual earnings—but it also puts women at a disadvantage during annual reviews.
There’s already evidence moms are receiving fewer promotions in the COVID era. A July 2020 survey by theBoardlist found that over one-third of men with children at home (34 percent) say they had, compared to only 9 percent of women with children at home who said the same.
Part of the reason for that might be long-standing biases that moms aren’t as committed employees as dads, as well as biases about workers who take advantage of flexible work policies. “There’s a flexibility stigma—when you take advantage of parental leave or flexible hours—that is associated with diminished status at work,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School and a co-author of the upcoming. “And it’s often disconnected from your actual output, productivity or performance—it’s just putting women who are actively parenting in this bucket as less important, less valuable employees.”
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But there’s also indication, as the Seramount survey shows, that some moms are declining promotions and stretch roles.
That’s what Eleanor Manning* did. A mom of two who works in production accounting for film and TV, she recently turned down an offer to be the first assistant accountant on a TV show. “During the interview, as she was describing the responsibilities, I was like, 'there’s no way I can make this work,'” Eleanor says.
Eleanor and her husband, who also works in film production, have been splitting the work of overseeing their kids’ virtual learning. Even so, without additional child care available, she knew she wouldn’t be able to supervise six people. Instead, she asked for and accepted a lower-paying second assistant position.
While Eleanor says she’s often made career sacrifices to care for her kids, with both kids in school and her mother-in-law providing after-school care prior to the pandemic, this was supposed to be the time when she took on bigger jobs.
“My career trajectory has already been impacted just being a working mom,” she says. “We’re not really comfortable having someone come into our house and watch our children, so until the virus is under control and schools reopen, I will be taking lower positions.”
“I need a reboot. I need a chance to totally shut down.”
More than one year into the pandemic, not much has changed for working moms. Though theis becoming more widely available, schools in many corners of the country remain fully remote, or on a hybrid schedule. that remote learning has been a big driver of women’s unemployment.
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And a year of working while caring for kids—not to mention all the meal-making and dish-washing—has taken a toll on parents.
“I need a reboot. I need a chance to totally shut down,” Robin says. She’s not sure if her uncertainty about resuming full-time work represents a permanent shift in her career aspirations, or if she’s just burned out.
In fact, the percent of employed female caregivers who said family pressures such as child care or elder care had significantly impacted their ability to do their job effectively nearly doubled from 36 percent in March/April 2020 to 66 percent in January 2020, according to the Seramount surveys. Moms are struggling more now than they were at the same time last year.
Sherbin says she’s thought about stepping back herself. “I absolutely love my job, and I love what I do, but it is really hard to sit on Zoom all day and watch your children struggle, and not be able to devote more time to helping them,” she says. “One of the reasons that I didn’t make a different decision is the economist in me has studied the cost of that for years.”
It’s a price many moms have decided to pay—albeit with few options on the table.
“A lot of times, these might be ‘choices’ mothers are making, but they’re very constrained choices, and they’re really conditioned by what those women are facing in the workforce, and of course, gender inequality at home that still exists,” Ammerman says.
“What we know from research, especially if we’re talking about professional, career-oriented women, is they would very much like to continue pursuing their career and growing and learning and contributing while in active parenting, but companies make it really pretty hard for them to do that.”
While many employers have offered programs to help working parents navigate a near-impossible situation—child care subsidies, paid leave and flexible schedules have not been uncommon—those benefits don’t mean much for parents who don’t have support from their boss. Only 14 percent of female caregivers said their manager consistently assesses their workload to help them balance responsibilities, in the latest Seramount survey.
It makes a big difference. Female caregivers with bosses who did help them manage their workload were almost twice as likely to say they feel supported professionally, and were half as likely to want to leave their job due to work/life stress.
Going forward, that support will be crucial for encouraging working moms to resume their career climbs and making sure they recover any progress they might have lost—especially as the work world shifts to embrace remote work, Ammerman says.
“Companies need to be very thoughtful that managers aren’t treating remote employees, or any who use flexibility to manage family responsibilities, differentially based on that—that they’re providing opportunities, giving stretch assignments and offering mentoring based on an employee’s measurable performance.”
*Name has been changed
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