A Dose of Optimism About Mothers at Work

This article has been updated to reflect news events.

After nearly two years of talking to mothers about how the stress of combining work and family under Covid pandemic conditions is disproportionately affecting them, my outlook for the future can be described as bleak (or, possibly, dead inside). Which is why it was refreshing to talk to Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University economics professor and the author of a new book, “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity,” which traces the ascent of college-educated women in the United States and their ability to combine well-paid work and motherhood.

Considering how far mothers have come in the past 100 years, she is optimistic about mothers at work in the long term, despite pandemic woes. As Goldin explains in “Career and Family,” in the early 20th century, college-educated women frequently had to choose between having a career and having children; she notes that only 50 percent of women who graduated from college from 1900 to 1919 had kids by age 44. Of women who graduated from college from 1980 to 2000, 79 percent had children by 44, which suggests that most college-educated women who wanted kids had them.

Workplaces “are changing because the fundamentals have changed,” Goldin told me, even though mothers “have been scarred” by the pandemic. Remote work has become normalized, and some power is at least temporarily back in the hands of workers, who have a bit of leverage in a tighter labor market.

She’s not delusional about the challenges ahead. Goldin writes: “We’re often guilty of disregarding the enormous scale and long history of gender disparities. A single company slapped on the wrist, one more woman who makes it to the boardroom, a few progressive tech leaders who go on paternity leave — such solutions are the economic equivalent of tossing a box of Band-Aids to someone with bubonic plague.”

The main reason she is optimistic, though, is that the pandemic, she said, may have “changed greedy jobs to be less greedy, and we have changed flexible jobs to be more productive.”

The new problem with no name is “greedy work”

Goldin dissects the numerous factors that go into the gender wage gap, which is larger for mothers than for women who do not have children, and finds that the biggest problem is what economists call greedy work: “high-salary jobs with long, inflexible hours,” according to one Harvard Business Review article. Highly educated women tend to be married to highly educated men, and when both partners have greedy jobs, it’s typically women who step back to tend to family, because most “parents cannot (and do not want to) contract away all care for their children,” Goldin writes. (Single parents have less room to step back, and same-sex couples can often avoid the normative gender expectations that opposite-sex couples deal with.)

As an example, she focuses on research that compared female M.B.A. graduates and their male counterparts. Right after graduation, women earned close to the same as their male counterparts. But 13 years later, Goldin found, women earned “64 cents on the male dollar.” The pay gap can be explained by the parental leave trade-offs that working moms have to make: Often the highest-paying jobs require such long hours that mothers can’t consider taking those jobs, and the jobs that still require long hours (even if not quite as long) pay less.

Surprisingly, to me at least, was that the occupational sector with the smallest gender earnings gap Goldin studied was for engineers: “Women in tech earn 94 cents on the male tech dollar,” she said. That’s because many tech workers tend to have fewer time constraints at work and less structured work, with more autonomy to determine their goals and priorities, and their work depends less on interpersonal relationships than it does in, perhaps, chummier sectors of the corporate world. The largest gaps were among M.D.s and J.D.s — likely because doctors’ and lawyers’ jobs allow less flexible schedules and, especially for doctors, are done in person and in coordination with many other people.

Ratio of women’s earnings to men’s for college graduates, by occupational sector. Note: Earnings are adjusted for age, hours and weeks worked and education beyond a bachelor’s degree; data used aggregate the American Community Survey for 2009-16.Credit…The New York Times

Loss of family time is a loss for everyone, not just mothers.

The silver lining of the otherwise devastating pandemic, Goldin said, is a “massively coordinated equilibrium,” in which we discovered that a lot of work could be done virtually and many people who spent a lot of time traveling for work found out that it wasn’t quite as necessary. In the Covid era, fathers have been able to spend more time with their children — though still less than the time spent by mothers, and mothers in greedy jobs — and perhaps realized how much they were losing by working so many hours.

That’s important: One of my gripes with the way this issue is framed is that we too often say career women are losing when they have to devote more time to parenting. Goldin is hopeful that we can change the conversation to look at how much fathers, too, are losing by spending so much time at work. “I hear it from my students, who, of course, are the workers of tomorrow, that they don’t want a life in which they’re not home for dinner with their kids,” she said. “They want to have a family, and they want to have the type of family that eats together.”

Pandemic woes have also brought conversations about the challenges of working mothers to the fore. After House Democrats on Wednesday moved to add a provision for four weeks of paid family leave back to their version of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, paid family leave, universal pre-K and child care provisions are still in play, and if they become law, will be a boon for all families, particularly those with working moms. “Who ever thought that coming out of this pandemic, we’d be talking about universal preschool?” Goldin said.

Good point. As uncertain as things remain for parents across the board, I don’t want to lose sight of progress, however glacial that progress might seem.

Want More on Working Parents?

  • One double-underlined sentence from Goldin’s book: “When couple equity is abandoned, gender equality in the workplace” is also abandoned. This year, I interviewed a sociologist about how couples can better balance the so-called mental load — “a mostly invisible combination of anxiety and planning at home.

  • For a less optimistic framing, Sydney Ember asks, “What if It Never Gets Easier to Be a Working Parent?”

  • A lack of reliable child care is one factor that’s making pandemic life rough on American mothers.

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