US Women are burned out. Men, do your part! (opinion)

00:00  30 september  2021
00:00  30 september  2021 Source:   cnn.com

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The pandemic that has sickened and killed so many people has been devastating in other ways, too -- primarily to America's women. And the setbacks may be permanent if we don't act soon.

a young boy using a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Young mother in home office with computer and her daugher © Shutterstock Young mother in home office with computer and her daugher

A new survey of 65,000 US workers from McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that a whopping one-third of women said they were considering quitting their jobs or reducing their hours. Female workers were more likely to say that they were burned out. And more of them were discouraged now than they were in the early, shocking months of the pandemic.

The survey reveals that the US has utterly failed its female workers. And that too many men have also failed women -- as bosses, colleagues, partners and co-parents.

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The factors fueling female burnout and American women's extraordinary pandemic job losses are many and complex, but they generally fall into two areas: policy failures and personal ones. We need to assess both if we ever want to see anything close to gender equality in this country.

When the pandemic first hit, women took the bulk of the professional blow. With schools and day care closed, and so many stuck inside for remote work and remote school, the workforce hemorrhaged women. Those most likely to drop out had the weakest safety nets: single mothers, often working for low wages. Black and Latina unpartnered mothers were more likely to leave work than White unpartnered mothers, and those with kids under five were particularly likely to become unemployed.

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But women across educational and income levels have also effectively been pushed out of their jobs.

This is the policy problem: There simply are no official systems in place to help mothers stay in the workforce -- making families figure it out on their own is the policy. For centuries, women's at-home labor has allowed men to "have it all" -- that is, a job and a family at the same time, without worrying much about "balance." Women did the balancing for them.

As women have surged into the workforce, though, America has made very few adjustments. It's still on families -- that is, women -- to figure out how to have children and paid work.

Public school is a place for older kids to go for much of the day, but not for those under 5. For those early years, which can stretch on for a decade or more if a family has more than one child, parents working outside the home are largely on their own to both hold a job and keep their kids safe and cared for.

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It doesn't have to be this way. Public education could be expanded to include universal child care for kids under 5. Paid family leave would allow new parents to stay home with infants. These are not radical ideas; in much of the developed world, they are taken for granted. But here, even modest shifts -- like the child care plan in President Biden's human infrastructure bill -- remain contentious and unrealized.

Good policies are essential. But they only go so far, and will only be as progressive as the society implementing them. In the US, we have a personal problem on top of our policy one: the men who shirk their at-home and child care obligations, those male bosses and employees who push the softer work of "communication" and "workplace well-being" onto women, and the many women who can't imagine something better.

What's more, caring for children should be the responsibility of both people who have a child. But women still do most of the work of child-rearing, even when those women work outside the home and are married to men fully capable of pulling their own weight.

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This long-standing reality, it can hardly be doubted, contributes to women's burnout and desperation. Many men who have a conflict between work and family can put work first, trusting that their wives or female partners will pick up the slack. Women often can't do the same -- and are much more likely than men to be parenting solo.

Up the family chain, it's often women who step up for unpaid care work, whether that's grandmas and aunts filling the child care gap or adult daughters caring for aging parents.

And these inequities don't just exist at home.

According to the McKinsey survey, female managers were more likely than male ones to report doing extra work to improve their workplaces and help their colleagues -- everything from checking in on employees' well-being and helping them manage their workloads to confronting workplace discrimination, mentoring employees who are members of underrepresented groups and dedicating extra hours to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

These efforts help employees want to stay -- but may paradoxically contribute to burnout among the female higher-ups who are doing the work without recognition, while their male counterparts focus on their own careers.

Men need to step up -- in their own homes, and as bosses and colleagues.

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A generation of burned-out women pulling away from paid work is a danger to women in this cohort, who will take a lifelong income hit even if they do return to work later, and are now at risk of falling into financial crisis.

Income losses that result affect the rest of women's lives, including their ability to save for retirement and their future Social Security benefits. Already, women over 65 are much poorer than men, in part because of the years women dedicate to caregiving while men stay in the paid workforce. If these women get divorced or their spouse dies, or if they were never married to begin with, they may find themselves in even worse financial straits.

Even women who remain in the workplace face an uphill battle: Men received three times the promotions women did in the pandemic, according to a study last year by software company Qualtrics and the Boardlist.

Women dropping out of the workforce hurts other working women, too: Researchers have found that men with stay-at-home wives are less likely to support the women who work for them than men whose wives work outside the home.

And of course, for women, this work exodus also sets up their children to embrace strait-jacketed gender roles, putting girls at a disadvantage. Researchers have found that daughters of working mothers do better in school and in their eventual jobs, while sons of working mothers do more care work at home when they have their own families.

This week's sobering survey points up a national crisis. Some of the damage cannot be undone. But many of the future harms can be avoided if we make family policy a priority, and if men step up and do their part.

a close up of Jill Filipovic in a blue shirt © Courtesy of Jill Filipovic Jill Filipovic

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