Art: Charter

On the face of it, women’s employment in the US has rebounded remarkably from the pandemic, hitting a record high last month. Economists point to a number of factors, including a strong job market and the availability of flexible work.

But women’s job satisfaction (60%) lags behind that of men (65%), according to a recent survey from the Conference Board. That’s largely due to dissatisfaction with wages, benefits, and bonuses—all signals that systemic strains and inequities remain unresolved.

To assess where things stand, we reached out to Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Calarco has been researching the reality of work for women, including mothers, and has a new book coming out next month titled Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

When we spoke in November 2020, I asked you, ‘What do we know from the pandemic so far that can make a difference for working families? What can employers, friends and colleagues do?’ Coming back to those questions, what have we learned about them from the past few years?

Unfortunately, one of the lessons that we’ve learned is that we are willing to sacrifice women for the good of the economy, and that we are willing to exploit labor where necessary essentially to fill jobs that no one else wants to do and push women into doing that work. And also not provide the kind of support that is necessary so that we can essentially treat women’s labor as a toggle switch that we can turn off or turn on or move up or move down depending on what the economy needs.

We had this moment where we thought we were going to build back better in terms of putting in place universal childcare, putting in place universal paid family leave, raising the minimum wage laws, raising the minimum wage in many states. Certainly some states have done so, but women hold 70% of the lowest-wage jobs in our economy. Yet we have not taken substantial or universal steps to improve the conditions for women.

If anything, we’ve made the situation worse in many cases for women, chipping away at the social safety net and the protections that we have for women, particularly on the reproductive options front, but also in terms of the accessibility of things like Medicaid, the accessibility of things like welfare. Those have been further eroded in the wake of the pandemic. At the time, there were lessons we could have learned, but we decided to follow the trajectory of what we’ve done in many other points throughout our history and opt to deprioritize women’s wellbeing instead.

Certainly we’ve seen rising rates of employment among women in the wake of the pandemic. But I’m not entirely convinced that we should be celebrating that increase in employment in part because so many of the women that I’ve talked to who have gone back to the workforce, have done so in ways that are not sustainable for themselves or for their families and that are taking a serious toll on their wellbeing. I’ve talked to families, for example, who are working a split shift where mom is home all day caring for the children and then working a night job after caring for the kids all day because they can’t afford childcare or they can’t access childcare in their communities. So that is the only way to make it work.

Yes, she’s back in the economy, but is that really good for her or her family or her kids? Oftentimes the answer is no. We have to be careful about celebrating this return of women to the workforce, given that we haven’t seen also a rise in the availability of childcare or a rise in access to the kinds of workplace protections that women would need to make this work in a sustainable way.

What can employers do to address these issues?

One of the big things that employers can do is lobby for better policies, using their collective power as powerful actors in our economy and our society to say, ‘We need better support in supporting our workers.’ It’s much easier for employers to act if there are policies in place that either require them to do so or that facilitate them doing so, whether that’s mandatory paid leave or universal childcare. If we are willing to solve these problems collectively, it takes a lot of burden off of employers to have to figure out these solutions individually for their employees.

Another thing is acknowledging the inequalities and the fact that just putting a policy in place doesn’t mean that it will be used equally or viewed equally by all of their employees or that it will automatically make life better for everyone. They should be thinking strategically, getting feedback from their employees about how these policies are actually being used. How is this benefiting or actually making things more challenging? Keeping those lines of communication open, being willing to listen and adjust if those policies aren’t working or aren’t working as well as they could be. And certainly not getting rid of the flexibility that we’ve had, but maybe not treating that as the only solution to the challenges that we’re facing right now.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of the impact of flexible and remote working on women, as well as the potential consequences of AI.

Pre-order Calarco’s book Holding It Together.

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