Mothers' work performance has suffered during the pandemic, study finds

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Researchers say mothers have taken on more unpaid work since the start of COVID-19

Recent studies have highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened stress for mothers at home with their job and little ones. Now, researchers from Washington University are exploring how mothers’ job performance has been affected. 

According to the study, mothers’ work performance has taken a hit since the start of the pandemic -- more so than fathers’. The researchers found this to be true even in situations where both mothers and fathers worked from home. 

“Our findings indicate mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence,” said researcher Caitlyn Collins. “Even among households in which both parents are able to work from home and are directly exposed to childcare and housework demands, mothers are scaling back to meet these responsibilities to a greater extent than fathers. 

“Ultimately, our analyses reveal that gender inequality in parents’ work has worsened during the pandemic,” she said. 

Mothers are making more sacrifices

To understand how job and household responsibilities have been divided between couples during the pandemic, the researchers analyzed data from a U.S. labor survey and the U.S. Current Population Survey. The study included information from February through April. 

Statistics from the beginning of the study revealed that fathers had increased their workload around the house in the early part of the pandemic. However, this didn’t hold up over the long term. 

By the last month of the study, fathers were working a regular 40-hour workweek on average while mothers had lost about two hours off their weekly working total. The biggest concern here is that women will face the consequences of this loss of work, whether it’s by missing out on a raise or promotion, or by losing their job entirely. 

“Scaling back work is part of a downward spiral that often leads to labor force exits -- especially in cases where employers are inflexible with schedules or penalize employees unable to meet work expectations in the face of growing care demands,” said Collins. 

The researchers identified mothers with young children -- those in elementary school or even younger -- to be most affected by this, but the researchers are unclear why this trend has emerged. As many states are now considering a potential return to school come the fall, it’s more important than ever for couples to prioritize balance when it comes to household responsibilities. 

“Flexibility is key right now,” Collins said. “By easing work demands and allowing flexibility where possible in the coming months, employers can prevent long-term losses in women’s labor force participation. And fathers should be encouraged to provide more hours of care for their children, even if it means sacrificing paid work hours to do so.” 

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