Working parents have been among those most harshly impacted by the pandemic over the past year—and research has shown that women have borne an extremely outsized share of that.
To better understand what organizations can do to support them, I spoke with Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:
We've had this "she-cession," a tragic development over the last year of women and working mothers especially having to drop out of the workforce. We have the economy kicking back into gear now, and we have women finding jobs—the April numbers were positive. We have companies that are adopting these return to workplace plans that for office-based work include hybrid configurations, some flexible hours. What do you make of all this?
That's a lot of what I've been reporting and writing about. I'm the director of the Better Life Lab, and that is exactly what we work on. How do you create systems where people can combine work and care? Decent, dignified, meaningful work, and time for care and connection in meaningful ways through the arc of their lives. That's exactly what we work on. I don't think enough people look at work itself. They think of it as a given. So this is a really exciting time, for all of the pain that it has caused, because it has shown so clearly what people who've been paying attention have known all along—and that is work doesn't work.
It doesn't really work for anyone. You're interested primarily in professional and white collar work, but if you look across the board, this has also shown that essential work doesn't work. We have to start reporting jobs numbers in a different way, because basically a lot of these jobs that we crow about—'Oh, we've added X number of jobs.' If you look at them, they're really crappy jobs. When you talk about work, you're really talking about almost two very different things. There's the professional worker who can go back, who's been working remotely and maybe has had real difficulty with childcare. Once school's open, that's going to be a very different experience of remote work, where you can be super productive. For an essential worker, it's been horrific, and other than a little bit of hazard pay there hasn't been much help at all. Most of them were exempted from paid sick days, and they don't have paid family leave. Going to work was a life or death decision for most of the people delivering us our groceries and stocking shelves. That's one thing to keep in mind: what kind of work are you talking about? Because it really depends on your class—remote work became a marker of class during the pandemic.
What should companies be doing in this moment for working mothers?
When we think about going back to work, there has to be recognition that women have certainly borne the brunt of so much of the difficulty suffering and challenge of the pandemic. You need to start from the recognition that if you thought that you were being gender neutral or gender blind, that isn't enough anymore. Why was it that almost immediately, it was women who took over the homeschooling and the caregiving? There are some studies where men are doing more than they were in the past, but it was women who really took on the brunt of it.
You look at studies where women are not sleeping, and are having far more periods of anxiety and stress. They really carried people through the pandemic. If you're going to talk about going back to work, companies can't just pick up where they left off. You've got to do more, because women are in the hole. You're not starting from an equal starting point. I would challenge companies to think about how can they do more with hiring, and making sure that you're bringing diversity, equity and inclusion—intersectional gender equity in your hiring. You need to be thinking about how you're promoting people. What metrics are you using? Are you going to be punishing the women who were forced out of the workforce, or who were so exhausted that they were cutting back their hours, or who were responding to emails at 11 at night because they had to do childcare all day?
You need to be really mindful. I think that CEOs in particular, but managers as well, need to be mindful that we are not starting at an equal starting point. You can't be gender neutral/gender blind because the pandemic showed that we aren't a gender-blind society. So you've got to do more to begin with, to bring women back. Some companies say that we'll stay remote hybrid and flexible. Some say, we'll do a hybrid. Goldman Sachs is coming back in the office—'we need to everybody on deck,' the old style of face time in the office.
There's probably going to be a range. And what's really important is to recognize number one, all of the resistance to remote and flexible and different kinds of work before the pandemic—and there was a lot—that's gone. You cannot say that people can't do their work productively and well outside of the office anymore. People have done it. They've done it through amazingly trying times. And they've done incredibly well. I can't tell you how many people have said I'm more productive now than I was before. Yes, we've got Zoom fatigue, but we're also not going to stacked up meeting after meeting. Because you look at any kind of productivity studies before the pandemic there were way too much interruptions, way too much over collaboration, a lot of garbage time answering emails and going to meetings. The was the study from Bain and Company showing that the average middle manager in America before the pandemic spent six hours a week on concentrated work. So work wasn't working before the pandemic.
All this vaunted return to face time—people need to really think about, are you excited about that because it's productive or are you excited about that because it's what you know? Are you just going back to something that's familiar and status quo? This has been a very unfamiliar time. So I would really encourage companies to move forward, not think about going back to work, but think about going forward into something new and creating something new when it comes to remote and flexible work. When we're focusing on mothers and women and caregivers, what I really say is you absolutely need to think about this as a business as something you're doing business wide and that the reasons people work remote or flexibly need to be agnostic.
You can be a millennial and work remotely. You can be an older person, an empty nester and work remotely or flexibly. If you create the culture or the practice or the expectation that only women will be the ones or only caregivers are going to be the ones who work remotely and flexibly, well then guess what? We're right back where we were before the pandemic with the mommy track. And we are right back with, 'Oh, the good workers are in the office. The good workers are here showing me how dedicated they are with face time. I don't know where all those others are. I think maybe they're going to see their children's soccer game. And I think they're changing the laundry and they're not as dedicated.' Which the studies show has always been garbage. And yet the studies show that managers and CEOs buy into that.
It's status quo bias, it's an unconscious confirmation bias. So it would be very important that whatever hybrid policy you adopt, that it is company-wide, and it is not just in special cases—so that everybody does it. The other thing they're going to need to do is make sure managers also model it, because if all the managers are in the office, that will create the face-time expectation that we'll go right back to a kind of post-war ideal worker, office culture—'I can tell that you're a good worker because I can see you' kind of management, which is outdated and has been absolutely the way that we've been working. You can see that even in the pandemic where you had where you've had some bosses who let you work remotely, but then they had surveillance and cameras and they watched people. I mean, that's creepy.
A third thing is metrics. How are you going to measure performance in a hybrid workforce? When you already know that there's a face time bias and you're probably really going to reward that person who physically comes into the office. How are you going to make sure that you acknowledge and recognize the work that's being done wherever it's being done? I would argue that the companies have already done the hard work that they did not do before the pandemic, because to survive in a remote atmosphere like so many companies have had to in the past year, you've had to be clear on what your mission is.
You've had to be clear on what your value add is. You've had to be really clear on what your priorities are and your tasks. You've had to be clear on how to communicate it. And I would argue companies really learned how to do that. So I would say, keep learning how to do it and keep learning how to do it better. Don't snap back into old patterns. You've done the hard work in trying to figure out how to measure it. Now it will become, how do you measure, how do you measure work that's done in different ways in two different settings and one that used to be rewarded and one that is newer. That will be something that companies are going to have to be very mindful of.
The last few things that I'd want to say is that the pandemic has clearly shown that companies need to take a stand on public policy. They can no longer say the free market knows everything, the market knows best and it will just figure itself out. Look at childcare. It was a raging dumpster fire. It did not work. The market does not work in childcare. It did not work before the pandemic, the pandemic showed it really didn't work. So if you are a business, you want the species to propagate–that's good for your society, right? You want that. So you need to recognize that you benefit from that and you need to be part of the conversation to say, we need to finally join the rest of advanced economies around the world and have a paid family medical leave program, because it is simply cruel and inhumane.
You need to be part of the conversation about what it means to support a universal childcare system for those who need it. And, you've got to go beyond the dependent care spending accounts. When I left the Washington Post, it was like $5,000 and I was paying, who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars for my two kids in childcare. I mean, it hasn't changed in years. It's ridiculous. Companies need to recognize they need to be part of these larger conversations.
The last thing that I'll say is we need to recognize that we've got a bifurcated workforce. We've got increasing inequality. If you have a company where you've got low-wage workers or hourly workers, you need to ask yourself, why do I have low-wage workers in the United States of America?
And it's time to think about what is decent work, what is dignified work? What are the benefits to all of us? There are low-wage workers who have unpredictable and wild schedules, largely in the retail industry, that's algorithmic, scheduling that looks at all the wrong measures. You actually are hurting yourself in the long run, in terms of customer loyalty or future lost sales. There's a lot of blindness in the way that we used to do work. I would really encourage companies, managers, CEOs to really be thinking through doing things in a new way that centers on humans and wellbeing. Because when you do, then work is better. If it's not just thinking about your bottom line and your shareholders, but really we need to be moving beyond. What kind of society do we want to be living in? And you are part of creating that. Sorry—I get really frustrated.
When you were talking about the mommy track, you said that a lot of the assumptions have always been garbage—what does research says about the biases there?
It's pretty clear when you have a face time culture—like in the United States in particular—anybody who deviates from that ideal worker norm is not ideal. This was certainly the case for me, when my children were young. In my case, I worked a four-day work week for awhile. If you wanted to work remotely from home, or you wanted to work flexibly, the mommy track was where they put you. They couldn't fire you, but you certainly were no longer on the promotion track. You were no longer the young rising star. You kind of went over here, we park you for awhile. So the thought was that you were not as dedicated, you were not as committed. You weren't going to work as hard.
Why I say that's garbage is because the research shows that that was absolutely never true. In my own case, I can't tell you how many people would come up to me after I'd written a project on a four-day work week. 'You did that on four-day work week?' As like my brain had fallen out, as if someone couldn't do good work in four days instead of five. So there were an awful lot of assumptions around that. The research does show that remote and flexible work actually increased productivity, that working mothers are just as as dedicated, just as committed sometimes more. And yet there is definitely bias. Bias studies showed that if you went by an office and a man wasn't there, unconscious bias means you automatically assume that that man was out at a client or doing something important work related. If you walked by an office and a woman wasn't there, the automatic assumption was that she's off with her kids. She's slacking off. There were an awful lot of biases that were not addressed. The pandemic certainly showed they're still incredibly powerful and incredibly destructive and it's time to move beyond them because like any bias, it's a myth. It's not real, it's not based on reality.
Do you have any point of view on how companies should consider caregiving obligations in performance reviews and when designing roles?
One thing to think about is it's not just children. We have an increasing aging population. We did this really interesting study looking at men. It was a nationally representative study that we did at the Better Life Lab. One of the things that I found that was so surprising and and important for employers to know is that men are also taking care of an elderly or aging relative or disabled relative. The assumption is that women do most of it and women certainly do more. But men do quite a bit—like 40% of the adult caregivers are men. What we've found is that men ended up reducing their hours or quitting their jobs at the same rate that women did because of caregiving responsibilities.
The first thing to recognize is that caregiving is a whole lot more than children. It spans the entire life cycle. It's something that we've always hidden because in an ideal worker culture an ideal worker does not have caregiving responsibilities. So people don't necessarily talk about it. Depending upon your culture, you don't even have pictures on your desk. Zoom, with the pandemic, has changed all of that. We're in each other's living rooms all the time. That would be a very interesting thing to see how that ends up changing things.
The first thing for businesses to think about is that you broaden your thinking about who a caregiver is. People themselves get sick—so we care for ourselves as well. Caregiving is really a human function. I want to get away from the idea that you need to accommodate caregivers as if they are somehow a lesser worker. You do need to recognize that people have different circumstances and don't assume that because somebody has children or is caring for an elderly parent that they're not willing to take on a stretch assignment or travel. Ask—don't assume.
In my book, one of the stories that I write about was one of the very first family responsibilities discrimination lawsuits that the EEOC filed. It was because a single mother was passed for a job because her bosses just assumed that she should spend more time with her children and that she shouldn't put in those long hours and they didn't ask her. And she said, I was already putting in those long hours, you just didn't know that. And you didn't ask me. And then you hired somebody with less experience and less education, and that's not fair. So have those conversations. Check your assumptions, but then put them aside and have those conversations.
With the economy coming back, women are regaining jobs, and we're seeing in some sectors that the labor market is tightening. Does that give any additional power to workers and are there any implications for working mothers as the economy takes off and employment surges?
That is conventional wisdom with the labor market. If it tightens, then workers will have more bargaining power. I'd like to think that's true. If I'm looking just at women, if I'm looking just at working mothers, women are overrepresented in low-wage and hourly work. A lot of them are mothers. A lot of them are single mothers. A lot of them are mothers of color. So again, what numbers are we looking at and what jobs are we talking about and where are they tightening and where is it getting better? And if you've got education and you have the ability to go into a white-collar job, you have an awful lot more power and opportunity than you do in—I don't want to call it low skill, I think that there are a lot of things that have required a lot of skill, but they are not valued.
This is part of a larger conversation that we need to have. For instance, I'm working on a story on home-care workers. At some point, about 70% of us are going to need to have a home-care worker helping us for between two and four years as we age. These are people who love what they do. So many of them are motivated because they love caring for other people and they make poverty wages. I'm talking to somebody who makes 11 bucks an hour in her fifties, and she had to live with her mother because she couldn't afford to buy both a car and an apartment. When we look at the numbers and we're talking about, it's getting better for women, it's getting better for some women. How can we make it better for all women?
Because that's really criminal. You've got childcare workers. We say that we don't subsidize the childcare system. Yes, we do. We subsidize it on the back of caregivers who earn 10, 11 bucks an hour and half of them make so little money that they qualify for a public benefit like Medicaid or food stamps. This is how we're building our childcare system. So who's benefiting? Part of the reset needs to be recognizing that there are a lot of jobs out there that mothers do, that women do. And care and an education that are crummy jobs simply because we do not value care. If you look at the fastest-growing jobs out there, look at future of work, it's technology, male-dominated, high-paying. It's also care work.
Again, all of us are going to need that care. At some point, 70% of us, according to the research. Low wage, highly feminized. What we've got here is the potential for a really dystopian even more sexist future of work, because we do not value those care jobs. That's a larger societal conversation. How do we begin to value those jobs that so many women do? Why is education paid so much less? There is so much gender inequity baked into our assumptions about jobs and what a good job is that it's time to have those honest conversations. You look at the wage gap—they talk about, well, it's occupational segregation and it's choices that women and mothers make. Sure, it's partly choices if you want to go into care or education. But why are those jobs such horrible choices? And those are larger questions that really reflects what a society values.
With the transition back to the workplace for a lot of companies over the next few months, are there any particular ways that you think that they can support working mothers through this transitioning period?
One of the first things to think about is you need to support not just working mothers. Working mothers are not the only ones who give care. You need to be thinking about working fathers and working elder caregivers. You need to stop thinking in such a gendered and siloed way. That ends up hurting women more because in a lot of our workplaces we expect men to be the breadwinners and we—again, those gender notions—expect men to be the ideal workers. Companies actually make it more difficult for men to be more active caregivers, which then freezes women into that caregiving role. How can companies help working mothers? By making sure that if you have a paid family leave program, that men use it and they use it across the life cycle. And if you're a boss or a manager, you take it, you model it and you show that care is something that's shared by all people—that it's a human function. It's not just something that mothers do.
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