A briefing paper prepared by Jill E. Yavorsky, University of North Carolina Charlotte, Yue Qian, University of British Columbia, and Liana Christin Landivar, Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, for the Council on Contemporary Families symposium The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality (PDF).
*Views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Three years later, women’s careers have still not fully recovered from pandemic-related impacts.
From the beginning of the pandemic, women-dominated jobs were hit hardest with employment losses, and mothers were more likely to lose or quit their jobs because of the additional childcare that fell on their plates due to school and childcare closures.
In a set of new studies, we examine career outcomes using data spanning the start of the pandemic through 2023 and uncover critical ways in which mothers’ careers are still lagging behind all others. We also find that a mothers’ education level is a key determinant for the type of career consequence they face.
In the beginning of 2023, the employment of mothers without a college degree – a group hit hardest in the early months of the pandemic – had still not recovered, as our recent research shows. Their employment remained lower in February 2023 than what it was pre-pandemic. In contrast, employment for fathers with and without a college degree and college-educated mothers fully recovered in 2021.
These results align with our new research based on Current Population Survey data showing that among those without a college degree and who had quit, been fired, or laid off during the pandemic, partnered mothers with children under age 13 were significantly less likely than comparable fathers to find new employment.
Why has lower educated mothers’ employment not rebounded?
Certainly, the concentration of mothers without a college degree in job sectors that experienced large employment reductions, such as the service industry, contributed to their sharp losses in employment early in the pandemic, and greater losses compared to fathers. But even within job sectors, mothers lost or left jobs at higher rates than fathers in nearly all industries.
Two big reasons many mothers left the labor force early in the pandemic and some have not returned are worsening childcare challenges and a lack of access to family-friendly workplace benefits.
New research shows that mothers who could work from home sustained employment at higher rates throughout the pandemic than those who were in jobs requiring on-site work. Unfortunately, few low-income jobs provide the ability to work from home or access to paid leave, making it difficult to meet intense caregiving obligations that grew over the pandemic and for some remained persistent.
For example, our new research using the American Community Survey, Current Population Survey, and the Elementary School Operating Status database shows that the impact of school closures had a particularly lingering negative effect on lower educated mothers’ employment. About 24% of elementary students were in school districts that did not fully reopen for between a year to a year and a half, a very prolonged gap in care infrastructure for young kids who still need supervision.
Our research shows it is mothers who picked up this added care, for many at the expense of their jobs. School closures for elementary students were associated with a 5 percentage point increase in the employment gap between mothers and fathers without a college degree. And notably, this gap persisted even 6 months after schools reopened.
Moreover, many childcare providers raised their prices or closed during the pandemic, making it even more difficult to find nearby and affordable childcare for lower educated mothers – many of whom already lived in childcare deserts or strained to meet high childcare prices before the pandemic.
What about college-educated mothers’ jobs?
If long-term employment hits largely did not impact college-educated mothers, then one might surmise that this group of women did not suffer any long-term career consequences. However, our new research suggests otherwise.
We conducted two studies that provide insights into the potential repercussions for college-educated women who remained employed during the pandemic.
First, we find that college-educated mothers experienced the largest motherhood wage penalty since the early 2000s, reversing twenty years of progress for this group of women. The motherhood wage penalty captures wage differences between mothers and non-mothers who have similar characteristics.
Prior to the pandemic, the motherhood wage gap for college-educated women had been eliminated, such that mothers and non-mothers earned similar wages. However, three years into the pandemic, college-educated mothers experienced a 6% wage penalty, relative to non-mothers.
As the graph below shows, wages for both mothers and non-mothers with a college degree took a hit after the onset of the pandemic in 2020, but non-mothers’ wages rebounded, whereas mothers’ wages did not.
Predicted Hourly Wage for Women with a College Degree
Note. For analysis shown in graph, we used months March through December for each of the years to maintain consistency across time and to capture the dip of the pandemic which began in March 2020.
We find that about a quarter of the wage penalty can be explained by either mothers holding jobs that experienced smaller wage gains in 2021 than the jobs that non-mothers held, and/or mothers switched into lower paying jobs during the pandemic, in part due to heightened work-family conflict.
Increases in the motherhood wage penalty may have also been due to heightened employer discrimination against mothers who experienced productivity losses, as many highly educated mothers suffered temporary productivity declines during the pandemic due to the additional childcare and housework they absorbed.
In a new study, we find that managers particularly penalize mothers for temporary declines in job productivity that result from childcare issues.
Specifically, managers distribute 30% fewer career rewards to mothers, compared to fathers, when their productivity temporarily declines due to childcare issues outside their control. There are no gender gaps in rewards when the employee’s productivity increases or stays constant from previous productivity levels (before they had childcare issues). We find that this is due to managers perceiving mothers as being less committed to their jobs and less interested in advancing in their careers than fathers.
What our results mean for gender progress
Taken together, our new studies show that mothers are continuing to suffer losses in employment, wages, and career advancement due to the COVID-19 pandemic – but in varying ways across educational levels. Lower-educated mothers are less likely to be employed since the pandemic, whereas higher-educated mothers, likely because of their ability to work remotely and greater access to childcare, have been able to retain their jobs but may be experiencing wage and promotion losses along with other career penalties.
To achieve a gender-equitable post-pandemic recovery, organizational and public policies are particularly needed to support labor market re-entry, equitable wages, and fair chances of moving through the career ladder.
And, our findings make clear that to jumpstart gender progress for all women, it is critical to build a more reliable, accessible, and affordable care infrastructure.
About the Authors
Liana Christin Landivar is a senior researcher at the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor and faculty affiliate at the Maryland Population Research Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.