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Many Mothers Left The Workforce In States With Remote Learning. What's Next?

Caitlyn Collins has long focused on policies that would allow women to better balance the roles of motherhood with a career.
File photo / Lara Hamdan / St. Louis Public Radio
Caitlyn Collins has long focused on policies that would allow women to better balance motherhood with a career.

The lack of full-time, in-person instruction for children during the pandemic has had a huge impact on one other group of people in particular: their mothers.

A new study from Gender & Society has found that, in states where schools were largely virtual, the difference in labor force participation between mothers and fathers grew significantly, exacerbating the preexisting gap.

At the start of the 2019-20 school year, the study found that American mothers participated in the workforce 18% less than fathers. By September, that gap had grown to more than 23% in states that continued to opt for remote instruction. In states where school buildings stayed open, the gap grew less than 1%.

The study was authored by Caitlyn Collins of Washington University; Leah Ruppanner of the University of Melbourne; Liana Christin Landivar of the Maryland Population Research Center and William J. Scarborough of the University of North Texas.

An assistant professor of sociology and of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Collins explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that the study looked closely at three states: Maryland, where schools were entirely remote going into the 2020-21 school year; Texas, where schools largely resumed in-person instruction; and New York, where a hybrid model was most common.

Maryland saw mothers' workforce participation drop by 16% — which Collins called “a bit jaw-dropping.” New York and Texas saw declines of just 7% and 10%, respectively.

In no state did fathers see a significant drop in their workforce participation.

“Without more support from fathers, employers, and the government, something had to give under this pressure,” the study noted. “What seems to be giving is mothers’ employment, with disastrous implications for their long-term earnings and occupational attainment.”

“Even small periods out of the labor force have long-term, quite disastrous consequences for mothers’ life-time earnings [and] occupational attainment,” Collins explained. “It might not seem like a big deal to stop work for a little bit of time, and believe me, I have talked to so many women who, this is a very logical decision given the constrained set of choices they face day to day. Unfortunately, when it is moms and not dads who are being forced to prioritize their family over their work responsibilities, this means that the gender disparities we already saw before the pandemic are likely to widen.”

Collins stressed that it didn’t have to be this way. She noted that many countries found ways to keep schools open or use remote learning for much shorter periods.

“In many other countries, governments prioritized schools,” she said. “When we think about keeping various entities open, the reality is that child care is a central feature of our economic infrastructure. People can’t work unless their kids are safely cared for. And so in other countries — Denmark is a good example — schools and day cares were the last places to close and the first places to reopen. When they needed to enter lockdown, schools were priorities. Day cares were priorities.

“Here in the U.S., we see in so many states, places like restaurants and gyms and bars being open with schools closed. To me, that’s such a backward way of thinking about our priorities.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.