On Mother’s Day we pause to consider the vital role women and mothers play in not just in our own lives, but in holding our society together. But in this unprecedented year, we should do more than celebrate and give thanks. In too many ways, the past year has been devastating for women — working mothers in particular. We must do more.
There have been a lot of stories written about the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19 and the fact that women have borne the brunt of it. Over the first 10 months of the pandemic, women accounted for 55 percent of all jobs lost — a net total of 5.4 million jobs. And the recovery in jobs has been slower in coming for women than for men. As recently as December, women accounted for 86 percent of all jobs lost that month; 196,000, versus 31,000 for men.
One reason women have suffered more than men is that women are more likely to work in the economic sectors — including leisure and retail — that have seen the greatest job losses.
But mothers have been hit particularly hard. As a result of pandemic-related closures of schools and child care facilities, mothers have been more likely to leave the labor market to care for children. Still more women with children have taken on the responsibility to care for family members who have been infected or are at high risk.
Tens of thousands of working mothers have been affected. A recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago estimates that around 200,000 fewer mothers were employed throughout the pandemic than before. Those most affected are Black, single, and non-college-educated mothers. The net effect is to further worsen the often-precarious economic situation of these women.
Recent economic news is more optimistic, and more men and women are going back to work. But, as in past recessions, some — perhaps many — of the jobs that have gone away will not come back. We should not underestimate the challenges many mothers and other women will face in rejoining the labor force and regaining lost ground.
Successful efforts to restart the economy and put Americans back to work must proactively consider the needs of working women. For example, New Jersey offers extra support through a child and dependent care tax credit and provided subsidies for child care for families earning up to $150,000 during the pandemic. These kinds of efforts offer significant help to women seeking to regain a foothold in the pandemic economy.
Still, we must continue to move forward with an eye toward the future. The federal infrastructure plan now being considered could create as many as 15 million jobs over the next 10 years. But 90 percent of current infrastructure jobs are held by men. There are many good reasons to favor a federal investment in infrastructure, but unless we address some fundamental issues in the economy, it won’t do much to help the millions of working women who have been affected by the pandemic.
This crisis has forced us to focus anew on the persistent barriers women face in the job market. Women are consistently paid less than men, even for the same job, and the gaps are even greater for women of color. And in some industry sectors, women face the barrier of outright discrimination or hostile work environments that close off avenues of opportunity to good jobs. Even AI-fueled algorithms have been shown to discriminate against women in finding good jobs.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We can start by recognizing that work is being transformed by the emergence of human work — the work only humans can do — in the face of ever-smarter and more capable technology. Human work draws on the unique capabilities of people to think critically, reason ethically, collaborate and interact personally, and serve others with empathy. Human work creates numerous opportunities not just for good jobs, but for work with real meaning.
In some ways, COVID-19 is hastening our move into the human work future. In particular, the rapid emergence of hybrid work models that incorporate technology offer new opportunities for workers with multiple responsibilities and complex lives — like working mothers — to forge a good work-life balance. Indeed, research has shown that women are more likely than men to seek out remote work.
As always, workers with higher levels of education and training will have a far easier time navigating these work-related shifts. This is why the first step in addressing the needs of working mothers is to assure all have access to the learning they need to secure a prosperous future.
In spite of the enormous gains in educational attainment by women over the past decades, working mothers still face significant barriers in obtaining the learning they need to get ahead. Too often, they are channeled into career pathways with limited opportunities. That must change.
New Jersey is a good example of a state that is moving in the right direction. The state is working to expand access to learning through increased apprenticeship opportunities and tuition-free community college. And the governor’s most recent budget proposal would expand this tuition-free option to students at New Jersey’s public four-year institutions as well. Further, a proposed pilot program of lifelong learning accounts would help workers pay for the education, training, and support services they need to get ahead.
These models are inspiring, and we must assure that all Americans have access to career-long learning. In the human work era, the traditional sequence of learning — the school-college-work pathway — is dead, along with the “once and done” approach to education. Everyone needs flexible, accessible opportunities to develop their abilities to the fullest throughout life.
Likewise, to open opportunities to all, workers and employers must have a clear understanding of the skills and abilities needed to perform any job. The means all learning — whether it’s higher education, apprenticeships, or on-the-job training offered by employers — should be open to all and lead to transparent credentials that show what people know and can do. Only full transparency about jobs can eliminate the implicit — and explicit — biases that limit too many opportunities to those on the “inside.” Efforts such as Credential Engine, and Data for the American Dream, both of which feature New Jersey as a lead state partner, aim to make learning more transparent on behalf of workers.
COVID-19 has exposed many uncomfortable truths about the way our economy limits opportunity for millions of working mothers.
Now, as the pandemic loosens its grip and the nation works to recover, let’s aim higher than a simple return to “normal.” Rather, let’s build an economy in which all working mothers can contribute to the fullest of their abilities. That’s a Mother’s Day gift that would benefit everyone.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”
Zakiya Smith Ellis, the former secretary of higher education in New Jersey, is chief policy advisor to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.