The catch 22 of working motherhood – the flexibility trap

We’ve realized how difficult it can be to be a working mom…now what?

Droves of women left the workforce during the pandemic because they took on more of the work of caring for children at home. In December 2020, the US lost 140,000 jobs, all held by women.

We do see a silver lining in all of the tumult. As a society, we’ve had a conversation on the work women do and just how much of the work they take on at home.  We started the year with a record number of women on US payrolls and spent the rest of the year unwinding decades of progress for women at work due largely to the fact that women had to shoulder childcare during the pandemic.

We’ve known about the challenges working mothers face for a while. The pandemic just squeezed these women to their breaking point, to the point where they could no longer make it all work. Parents today spend more time parenting than ever before.  Mothers work more hours than ever before. Nuclear families have less support from extended family and community and childcare is expensive.

On top of all of that women are expected to be ‘flexible’ and are penalized for this flexibility in the form of the gender pay gap. Flexibility does not make up for insufficient support, it patches it up with band-aids and paper clips.

“Since birth, women have been conditioned to value their time less than men’s time. I know I did, and it comes up in how women speak about their obligations in the home. The number one thing I heard from women in cisgender heterosexual relationships [about why they carry a larger part of the child-rearing responsibilities] is, ‘My job is more flexible.’ I’m here to tell you flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. There are studies that show if a woman is a doctor, and the man a professor, the woman will say her job is more flexible. Then another study includes a woman who is the professor, and a man who is a doctor. The woman still says her job is more flexible. This is an example of women being conditioned to guard men’s time as more valuable than their own.” – Eve Rodsky talks about the time bias forcing women out of the workforce in a Forbes interview.

Where do we go from here?

There are many opinions. This is a complicated problem, after all.  However, there are some obvious (“obvious” does not mean easy) things we can do. Let’s value the time of working mothers as much as we value the time of working fathers. Here is our checklist:

  1. Provide better support for pregnant women and working mothers in the early months of motherhood when they are most likely to be struggling with finding space to be both a worker and a parent
  2. Expect more from fathers. Offer equally parental leave and expect them to take parental leave. Expect them to be equal parents and need to take sick days or do daycare drop-offs
  3. Make quality affordable childcare more accessible. If parents can afford quality childcare, they can afford to work. If parents know their children are well taken care of, they can focus on work while at work.
  4. Offer flexibility, without a penalty, that works for workers and employers. Most of us are biased toward the way we work today. So much so that it can be hard to imagine working in a new way even if that new way works for more employees and can lead to better productivity

Reading and resources for you:

Some great studies cited in that Forbes interview with Eve Rodsky:

Women are not better at multitasking. They just do more work, studies show

Women more than men adjust their careers for family life

Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences

Parents now spend twice as much time with their children as 50 years ago