Decades of feminist gains in the workforce have been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended public education across the United States, a critical infrastructure of care that parents — especially mothers — depend on to work, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis.
The research, published in Gender & Society, draws on new data from the Elementary School Operating Status (ESOS) database to show that the gender gap between mothers and fathers in the labor force has grown significantly since the onset of the pandemic in states where schools primarily offered remote instruction.
And if these circumstances continue, it could deliver a long-lasting blow to mothers’ lifetime earnings and occupational trajectories.
At the start of the 2019-20 school year, U.S. mothers’ rate of labor participation was, on average, 18 percentage points less than fathers’. By last September, the gap grew to over 23 percentage points in states where schools primarily offered remote instruction. In comparison, in states where in-person instruction was most common, the gender gap in parents’ labor force participation grew by less than 1 percentage point, to 18.4%.
“Our research shows schools are a vital source of care for young children, and without full-time, in-person instruction, mothers have been sidelined from the labor force,” said Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences and co-author of the study.
“The longer these conditions remain in place, the more difficult it may be for mothers to fully recover from prolonged spells of non-employment, resulting in reduced occupational opportunities and lifetime earnings.”
As the pandemic continues into the spring, states with significantly curtailed in-person learning will likely continue to see low maternal labor force participation with the potential for devastating, long-term employment effects for many women with children, Collins added.
While the primary function of schools is children’s education, they also provide an expansive infrastructure of care — especially for elementary school-age children — that parents, businesses and the economy rely upon, Collins said. COVID-19 has strained that infrastructure in unprecedented ways.
States have varied considerably in their approaches to slow the virus’ spread and reopen schools, resulting in a patchwork structure of K-12 education across the United States.
Maryland – where schools across the state primarily opened remotely in 2020 – experienced the largest drop in mothers’ labor force participation. In 2019, Maryland mothers with elementary-age children had a 90% predicted probability of being in the labor force. When schools opened in 2020, that probability dropped to 74%, representing a 16-point drop. In comparison, Maryland fathers’ predicted probability of labor force participation dropped by 5 percentage points, from 92% to 87% – a statistically insignificant change, the authors wrote.
Just 200 miles away, New York took a different approach: Nearly half of the elementary schools in the state offered hybrid programs consisting of a mix of remote and in-person education. Researchers found that mothers’ labor force participation in New York declined by 7 percentage points, from 79% to 72%. Fathers’ labor force participation dropped by 4 percentage points, from 96% to 92%. Neither of these drops was statistically significant.
Finally, in Texas – where more than half of school districts offered full-time, in-person education for elementary students – mothers’ labor force participation dropped by 10 percentage points, from 77% to 67%, and fathers’ from 96% to 93%. While this was a larger shift than observed in New York, it was still substantially smaller than the changes observed in Maryland.
Across all states, mothers’ work attachment fell to a greater extent than fathers’, but the gap is widest in states, like Maryland, where schooling was fully remote at the start of the school year.
As the current research illustrates, mothers have paid the price of the childcare crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.