Collateral damage: The effect of the pandemic on working moms - MetroFamily Magazine
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Collateral damage: The effect of the pandemic on working moms

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 11 minutes 

As an attorney and business owner, Christine Cave has always made a point to separate her professional and home lives. Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, and she found herself on a video chat with a client while her 3-year-old sat on her lap. In another situation, she negotiated the settlement of a case over the phone, punctuated by the noise of her kids playing in the background.

“This has required redefining what it means to be a professional,” said Cave, who owns Employers Legal Resource Center, where she works with metro small businesses and nonprofits in her specialty of employment law. “Can’t you be a professional and also have kids? There is room for both to coexist.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not agonizingly difficult.

TANZEENA FRANCKA AND FAMILY

Tanzeena Francka, a mom of three and a senior human resources business partner with Boeing in Oklahoma City, says navigating the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges she’s experienced as a parent. But she’s been appreciative of her company’s flexibility and support, which has strengthened her professional commitment.

“If I wasn’t with an employer this flexible, I’m not sure what my family would have done,” said Francka. “We are all really feeling the mom guilt, but I have appreciated knowing even though I have extra parenting responsibilities right now that it’s not limiting my opportunities at work.”

Even as Francka is working with her team on initiatives like engaging employees working virtually to keep a sense of camaraderie and reinforcing the expectation with managers to make flexibility and understanding a priority, she’s also navigating her two older kids’ virtual school days.

Shontrice Sharpe, human resources manager for the AGS Oklahoma City office, reminds her employees they must communicate their needs during this pandemic, just like she has negotiated a more flexible schedule so she can help manage her three kids’ virtual schooling.

Andrea Bryant, director of people and culture for Kimray Inc. and mom of two, has led initiatives to survey employees about their struggles with school or childcare so the company could address them proactively. Kimray has allowed remote working for non-production employees for the first time.

While these metro moms have found or created new flexibilities for their workforces and themselves as the pandemic has drastically changed childcare and school schedules, they recognize not all working moms have been so fortunate and acknowledge even with supports in place, they are still struggling.

“We’ve seen a rise in the diversity of the workforce [including] women in higher positions, but we’re likely going to see a reverse of that as a lot of women have to
step back,” said Matt Tipton, owner of Why HR in Oklahoma City, of the pandemic’s effect on working moms. “Many moms especially are going to quit their jobs because it’s not worth it, trying to juggle employers who aren’t being helpful or trying to cut
their pay.”

The perfect storm

Women make up 50 percent of the workforce in the United States, and in half of the 30 million families with kids under 18, a breadwinner mother contributes at least 40 percent of household earnings, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy. From 2015 to 2020 in America, the representation of women in senior vice president roles grew from 23 to 28 percent, and from 17 to 21 percent in the C-Suite; while women, particularly women of color, remain grossly underrepresented, the numbers were improving.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and women’s careers have been disproportionately affected. According to Women in the Workforce, the largest comprehensive study of women in corporate America, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. Their primary reasons are lack of flexibility, housework and caregiving burdens and burnout from feeling the need to work all hours while also worrying their
performance is being judged because of caregiving responsibilities (mothers worry about this twice as much as fathers).

“There’s a false sense of ‘you’re a mom so you can juggle it all,’” said Tipton. “Businesses can’t fall into that.”

More than three-quarters of women surveyed by Women in the Workforce with children under age 10 said childcare has been one of their top three challenges during the pandemic, with just 54 percent of fathers sharing that same concern. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving. For the 1 in 5 moms who don’t live with a spouse or partner, or for dual mom households, the challenges are even greater.

“It’s hard to find that balance when you need to be teacher and support while still having a full-time job,” said Bryant. “I put a ton of pressure on myself to be the best I can professionally and as a mom and wife. Over the last few months, I’ve felt I’ve failed at every one of those on more than one occasion. In reality, I haven’t failed; I need to have grace with myself and find the balance I need to meet the expectations I have for myself.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women made up 80 percent of the nearly 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force in September 2020. So while women’s official rates of unemployment fell in September, that doesn’t account for those who left the workforce entirely. And while the overall unemployment rate of women fell to 7.4 percent in September, Hispanic and Black women’s rates rose to 11 and 11.1 percent respectively.

One third of working women are employed in two industries hit hardest by the pandemic, the health and social assistance industry with increasing demands and potential burnout, and the leisure and hospitality industry, which is experiencing closures.

While the underlying issues of women’s underrepresentation in leadership, the gender pay gap and women baring the brunt of household and caregiving responsibilities aren’t new, they’ve been exacerbated.

“This is an incredibly stressful time, but for working parents, these aren’t novel issues, they’re just novel times,” said Cave. “Someone lit the match and we’re seeing things on a much more intense level.”

How employers can support working moms

While the Family First Coronavirus Relief Act provided some American parents with provisions to take partially-paid leave to care for children out of school or daycare because of the affects of the pandemic, Cave says many working moms took that leave at the front end of the pandemic when the population largely assumed disruptions would be short-lived.

With those provisions expiring at the end of 2020 and a pandemic still raging, some employers, which Cave calls not adaptable by nature, have chosen to become more flexible to support employees.

“No business thinks this is going to be their best sales period, but maybe they will be building loyalty and commitment from their employees that translates to more productivity when they are able to return in a more traditional way,” said Cave.

Even with a predominantly male workforce, especially in the Oklahoma City location, AGS has made accommodations for working parents. While full remote work isn’t possible for all administrative level staff because of the nature of the manufacturing business, some employees like Sharpe now work remotely a few days per week.

SHONTRICE SHARPE AND FAMILY

“We want our employees to have a presence but we also don’t want their kids to suffer because this isn’t their fault,” said Sharpe.

Sharpe, Bryant and Francka’s companies have each proactively asked employees what support they need at various points during the pandemic. Even if a specific situation can’t be assuaged to an employee’s exact specifications, management may be willing to compromise.

“Employees have said there is value in flexibility, and it [should be] addressed on an individual level because there isn’t just a one-size fit,” said Bryant. “Small tweaks on the business side could be monumental for an employee.”

Bryant now works from home three days per week, and thanks to flexibility in her schedule is able to drop her kids off at school for the first time in her career. Kimray team members are managed and evaluated on the quality of performance and work produced, not necessarily set hours during the course of the day.

“We have started to do business in a different way and we’ve actually become better,” said Bryant. “Offering remote working has made some employees much more efficient.”

Even supported working moms cite burnout, particularly those working from home. Francka’s days no longer have a set schedule, with constant shifting between mom and work modes. She spends weekends preparing for her kids’ virtual school days, planning lunches and snacks and coordinating work obligations with her husband. Though Sharpe’s kids have a virtual teacher, it’s up to Sharpe and husband Terrence to teach new material, and even with an organized schedule, sometimes chaos ensues.

“There are still constant interruptions,” said Sharpe. “Some days are great, they stay on task and I can get work done, and other days I am helping with school work all day. I try not to be so hard on myself and stay in communication with my employer about deadlines.”

Especially because of the propensity for burnout, mental health support for employees has never been more critical. Many businesses can and do provide the Employee Assistance Program, a common component of which is free or reduced cost counseling services. Boeing launched a new tele-health service partnership during the pandemic and has actively reminded employees of their access to EAP services.

“We should also be reminding employees to exercise, to take a break from the computer and walk around, to give them permission [when it comes to] caring for mental health,” said Tipton.

When Boeing’s employees said they missed personal interaction, an internal photo sharing site was developed to help them stay connected. Managers are consistently trained in engaging employees virtually. After-work virtual book clubs, game nights and happy hours have added a sense of camaraderie and fun.

“Study after study shows employees who feel appreciated and engaged are more efficient and effective,” said Francka. “Feeling like we’re all in this together is so important.”

Tipton says businesses that support their employees during challenging times will see returns.

“It may take a while, but it will pay dividends when it comes to retention, and that all goes to the bottom line,” Tipton.

How moms can advocate for themselves

While Tipton believes it’s imperative for women to understand their worth and negotiate with power both in a new job and a current situation, he says it’s ultimately employers’ responsibility to review longtime policies related to hiring, promotions and support to address systemic issues creating gender gaps. But that doesn’t negate the opportunity women can and should seize to advocate for themselves in the workplace.

Tipton advises working parents to over communicate to their supervisors during the pandemic, especially if they are working remotely, to well-document time spent, tasks completed and goals achieved.

Working moms should research the requirements of their job and what alternative arrangements could look like to achieve them. At Boeing, employees must work a specific number of hours but the company has provided employees with flexible options to consider, from job sharing to making use of personal time or sick leave.

“It’s easier to have a conversation when you come to the table with potential solutions,” said Francka.

Francka was concerned the pandemic and her added parental responsibilities would halt her career progression and employee development, but the opposite has held true in her situation, and she encourages other working moms to stay focused on long-term goals.

“I worried, in the beginning, I might miss out on opportunities or [my employer] wouldn’t want to overload me because I have kids at home,” said Francka. “We’ve built a life around having two working parents, so it’s not just important to me but to my family.”

Working moms can advocate for themselves by saying no to mom guilt and finding time to care for themselves.

“Most of the time we hold stuff in, try to be strong, carry the weight and keep pushing through, but it’s not good in the long run,” said Sharpe.

Sharpe says talking through her feelings and challenges with her husband or a professional, taking breaks from social media and making time for activities she enjoys provide peace. The added weight of being an African American female during a time when racial injustice is such a relevant and sensitive topic has added an extra layer of stress and pain during the pandemic.

“I have to show up to work and put on a smiling face when I may be hurting,” said Sharpe. “Still dealing with this in this day and age is hard for me to wrap my head around.”

Sharpe finds empowerment in pausing to recognize her own strengths and professional knowledge.

“I have a voice, I’m proud of who I am and I’m in a position where I can educate employees,” said Sharpe.

Cave firmly believes a focus on grace in situations of ongoing stress makes a difference for employees and employers both.

“You can be a great mom and still get emails done, even on a Saturday,” said Cave. “I’m trying to make sure I’m giving myself grace when the balance tips in one direction because of work deadlines and making time on the other end to go get root beer floats and have fun.”

Each of the working moms also acknowledges that changing jobs or leaving the workforce entirely may be the right answer for some, and that’s OK.

“By nature, some businesses will not have the ability to provide the flexibility they need,” said Bryant. “People have to find what is right for them, and that may be completely different than what was right six months ago.”

The gender gap

The Economic Policy Institute reports that on average women are paid 23 percent less than men with similar education and experience. White women are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid a white man, and that number drops to 62 cents for Black women, 57 cents for Native women and 54 cents for Latinas, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Normal recessions close the gender pay gap by 2 percent, but a pandemic recession widens it by 5 percent, reports the National Bureau of Economic Research. Further, women often incur a pay penalty on returning to work after a prolonged absence — like after having a child or now withstanding a pandemic — earning up to 7 percent less than men in the same position, according to PayScale. And only two in five of the 12.1 million jobs lost by women from February to April have returned, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

For moms who have exited the workforce to care for kids and want to return years later, Cave hopes for a future where employers or government policy would provide for reentry education and training to fill in gaps in areas like technology.

“You don’t need two years to catch up, but you might need an 8-week course,” said Cave. “On a societal level, we have to figure out what the value of [working moms] is and if there are social policies to help support that.”

Some of the practices businesses have put into place during the pandemic to support working parents could morph into long-term options to increase retention. Sharpe’s company is considering more flexible work-from-home policies. While to businesses and employees alike, government initiatives like tax support and FFCRA may have felt like a Band-Aid, Cave says they were both fairly unusual and a good example of policy-level changes to examine for the future.

“This is a good opportunity for us to all take a minute and reflect where our priorities are, from the working parent to those in a position of policy making in business to policy makers on state or national levels,” said Cave.

Sharpe says when employers create more flexible policies that support working parents, they’re ultimately choosing success for their business.

“Studies have shown women in leadership positions have led to more successful organizations,” said Sharpe. “You want employees to show up happy to be at work because ultimately they are creating your product. For your customers to be happy, that starts with the employee.”

Bryant is proud that Kimray pays employees 100 percent of their salary when on maternity or paternity leave. She believes for long-lasting change businesses have to realize that what working parents are doing in their time away from the job is just as important as their careers, and supporting them in those efforts reinforces their professional commitment.

“We have to reevaluate how we’re compensating team members and ensuring people don’t fall behind,” said Bryant of assessing the gender pay gap. “When something [like the pandemic] becomes so widespread that it affects everyone and brings to light the issues we have, it’s the perfect time for working women to use our voices.”

Francka has used her position to help educate those around her about the hardships of being a working mom and the value in supporting them. She finds hope in watching how other moms around the metro — and the globe — have been open about the challenges, too.

“That fact opens the door for all of us to talk about our experiences as working moms, and that door will remain open after the pandemic and only help us from an equity perspective,” said Francka. “If we all band together and talk about how important this stuff is, we’re either in leadership positions where we can make change or we can influence leaders to make change.”

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