Study shows moms with young children have reduced their work hours more than dads during the pandemic

Yahoo Life’s Korin Miller explores how working parents are affected by the coronavirus crisis and offers expert input on how families address this issue.

It’s weird when you recognize that, despite your best efforts, things aren’t even close to being equal in your household. While I’m the primary breadwinner for our family, my work hours have been altered and cut during the pandemic while my husband works the same – if not more – hours than he did pre-pandemic. 

To be fair, my husband is an essential worker, and he has to leave the house to work while I work from home. Our daycare closed with the pandemic so I’m the sole caregiver for our three young kids – who range in age from 15 months to 7 years – for most of the day. Even though I get up at 4 a.m. to try to get all of my work done, I’ve lost anywhere from one to two hours of work time a day since the pandemic hit.  

I know I’m lucky to be in a privileged position to have work when so many others don’t, and I’m thankful for that. And I know some people have been struggling with this reality way before the pandemic hit. I’m also fortunate to have a partner who is also working and who is happy to care for our kids when he’s home.

But our current arrangement is clearly unbalanced. In fact, I’m writing this story at home while keeping tabs on my two older children – the baby is napping. Meanwhile, my husband has two hands free at his job.

Moms have reduced their work hours by about 5 percent while the work hours of dads have largely stayed the same, a new study shows (Photo: Getty Images)
Moms have reduced their work hours by about 5 percent while the work hours of dads have largely stayed the same, a new study shows (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m not the only mom struggling with the status quo. Smitten Kitchen founder Deb Perelman wrote an essay for The New York Times detailing how it can feel like working parents have to choose between having a kid or a job during the coronavirus pandemic. Women’s health expert Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an ob-gyn in Texas, tells Yahoo Life she’s also had to scale back her work hours lately, both due to the pandemic’s restrictions on her ability to provide proper, safe care to patients and the need to care for her children. She specifically cites “having less access to babysitters, camps, and activities” as an issue, along with “trying to keep them safe by minimizing outings.” 

New research shows that the pandemic-induced status quo has only widened the gender gap in work hours. Moms have reduced their work hours by about 5 percent while the work hours of dads have largely stayed the same. 

The study, which was published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization in July analyzed data from approximately 60,000 households surveyed by the U.S. Current Population Survey. The study’s researchers analyzed changes in the data from February to April in dual-earner heterosexual married households. Among other things, the researchers found that father’s hours didn’t fall below 40 hours a week, suggesting that dads continued to put in a full workweek. Moms, on the other hand, lost about two hours of work a week.

The researchers found that the impact was greatest in moms who had elementary school-aged kids or younger. Why? Those kids need the most help and attention during the workday, study co-author William Scarborough, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, tells Yahoo Life.

What’s going on here?

A lot, actually. While the new study focused on the actual numbers and not so much the why, Scarborough says there are a lot of theories behind what’s happening.

The first is that, in heterosexual couples, kids “de facto go to mom first,” Scarborough says. “This is probably reflective of ongoing gender inequalities – mothers are doing the majority of caregiving,” he says.

Study co-author Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist and faculty affiliate at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Population Research Center, tells Yahoo Life that moms are also “more likely to scale back at work than fathers, even under normal conditions,” although it’s not entirely clear why. “The pandemic has exacerbated these patterns,” she says. “With widespread childcare and school closures, someone has to provide the care. This has largely fallen to mothers.” 

Women often “have no choice” but to cut back their work hours, especially given that many need to do general caregiving, homeschooling and housework on top of their paid work, lead study author Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology and of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Yahoo Life. “Women more so than men tend to be burdened with these tasks, given prevailing cultural beliefs about who can and should care for children,” she says. 

The result, though, isn’t great for women. Scarborough anticipates that moms may end up earning less over time and may eventually land in fewer leadership roles as a result. Black and Latinx women as a whole tend to work in less flexible jobs with reduced access to benefits and more on-side work requirements, Landivar says —and this inequity can hit them especially hard. “Overall, this creates a negative pattern,” Scarborough says. “This is really going to hurt women’s work outcomes, we believe.”

What can families do about this?

Scarborough says it’s crucial for families to even recognize that this is happening. “We have this normative tendency for mothers to take on more than fathers,” he says. “I don’t think most fathers want to undermine their partner’s work productivity, but we need to see these gender inequities and to respond to them.” 

Employers can also help out, Landivar says. “Employers will need to provide generous flexibilities to working parents who are working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and men should use these flexibilities to the extent they are available,” she says. “Expanded government investment in childcare and paid sick and caregiving leave will be critical for parents, especially mothers, to maintain work attachment amidst limited childcare availability and school closures and the resulting increased expectations of homeschooling.”

Ultimately, Collins says, dads need to do more. “Fathers have a right and a responsibility to participate equally in childcare and housework—in good times and in COVID times,” she says. “This labor should not fall solely or mostly on women.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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