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Working Mothers Find a “Silver Lining” in the Pandemic

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The share of American women working for pay is currently at an all-time high, with a significant increase seen among mothers of children under 5. This unexpected surge can be attributed to the ability of certain mothers, particularly those who are married with college degrees, to work remotely. According to an analysis by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, this group of mothers has experienced the largest gains in employment since the pandemic.

Lauren Bauer, a fellow at Brookings and one of the authors of the analysis, expressed astonishment at the trend among married, well-educated women with young children. She noted that these women have always seen themselves as workers and were already experiencing upward momentum before the pandemic. Julia Keintz, who took a job at Zillow two years ago when her children were infants, cited the flexibility of remote work as a major advantage. She no longer has to commute, saving 90 minutes a day, and can attend to her children’s needs more easily.

The increase in the participation of women in the US labor force has been a gradual process since the 1970s. In the 1990s, it surpassed 77% for ages 25 to 54, thanks to changes in welfare and tax credit policies. However, progress stagnated afterwards, even as other countries continued to see increases. Economists attribute this to the lack of family-friendly policies and employers’ expectations of constant availability, which are difficult to fulfill with children at home.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, women’s employment gains have not been erased. The share of employed women ages 25 to 54 has reached a new high of 77.7%. Mothers of both preschool and school-age children are now more likely to be working than they were before the pandemic. Several factors have contributed to this trend, including temporary federal expansions of paid leave and child care subsidies, permanent benefits implemented by states and cities, a tight labor market, inflation, and cultural shifts that prioritize education and career.

Remote work and increased flexibility in office jobs have been particularly influential in encouraging parents, including fathers, to join or continue in the workforce. This trend has also benefited individuals with disabilities. Becca Cosani, a health insurance consultant and mother of two, experienced a significant change in her work due to the pandemic. She now works from her home office, which allows her to spend more time with her children and take breaks to complete household chores or attend to family needs.

While remote work has benefitted college-educated mothers of young children the most, those with less education, as well as unmarried or Hispanic women, are more likely to have jobs that cannot be done remotely. They have seen a lower return to work rates compared to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, they often lack family-friendly benefits and flexible schedules from their employers. Researchers emphasize the need for government policies and structural supports to help all workers, especially those who cannot work remotely.

Overall, the increase in women’s labor force participation, particularly among mothers, is a positive outcome of the pandemic. Researchers hope that this awareness will lead to the creation of better social policies and supports for all workers.

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