The number of working women with small children is at an all-time high in the U.S., according to a recent analysis of federal data by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.
Labor force participation rates of women whose youngest child is under age 5 had been relatively flat at just above 65 percent since 2008, though their participation started to rise after 2017, the study noted. But in 2023, the participation rate of women ages 25-54 with children under age 5 who had a job jumped suddenly to over 70 percent.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred structural changes in the labor market and expectations … about what jobs are and what flexibilities can be encouraged or accommodated," said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at Brookings, who co-authored the report. "This study is early evidence that one of the groups who would benefit most from this sort of change in the nature of work, mothers with young children, are responding."
Researchers also assessed participation rates for mothers with elementary school-aged children (ages 5-12), those with teens and those with no children under 18. Overall, mothers with teenagers had the highest participation rate, followed by those without children at home and then mothers with kids ages 5-12.
Despite having the lowest workforce participation rate, mothers with small children were the only group to have rebounded past their pre-pandemic employment levels. Researchers cited several factors that could have contributed to this acceleration, including:
Workplace flexibility has also helped, Bauer said. About 44 percent of mothers who have at least a bachelor's degree and one or more young children reported that they worked remotely at least one day a week in 2023.
"Job flexibilities not only support retention," Bauer explained, "but are bringing more well-qualified candidates into the workforce."
Other research shows that remote work likely contributed to a mini-baby boom in 2021 among women in the U.S.—a reversal of a years-long decline in the birth rate and a possible driver of future economic growth, according to a working paper by three economists that was published in 2022.
Return-to-Office Mandates Could Reverse This Trend
The Brookings study mentioned that remote work has helped working mothers maintain or gain employment. But more companies are implementing return-to-office mandates, potentially compromising workplace flexibility that working mothers had during the pandemic.
In a recent survey of 1,000 companies by ResumeBuilder, 90 percent plan to require workers to return to the office by the end of 2024 at the latest. Nearly 30 percent say their company will threaten to fire employees who don't comply with these mandates.
Kristi LeBlanc, a managing partner at talent advisory firm DHR Global in Washington, D.C., knows many working mothers who were required to return to the office but are not willing to put their children into day care for various reasons, including the rising cost of child care.
"They have, in some cases, resigned and in other cases are working with HR to figure out a solution," she said. "The fact that companies are facing losing valuable employees who have been fully performing well while working at home should signal to the organization that there should be a compromise."
Motherly's 2023 State of Motherhood survey found that 18 percent of working mothers in the U.S. left their jobs within the past year, with "staying at home with children" and "lack of child care" cited as the top two reasons.
Returning to the office five days per week doesn't make financial sense for many families, LeBlanc explained. She said remote work also reduces the stress burden of working mothers, allowing them to pick up a sick child from school or manage a midday doctor's appointment.
However, Vanessa Gennarelli, principal of change management firm Fortuna in Philadelphia, noted that not all mothers prefer remote work.
"Some of the moms I've worked with prefer the office because it enforces a spatial boundary," she said.
Having a Job Benefits Mothers … and Their Children
LeBlanc said a hybrid- or remote-work model would not only help working mothers keep their jobs, but would also support their children's long-term development.
"As someone who has worked from home since my kids were 2, 2 and 4, I can say this: When any parent, mother or father, is fulfilled and challenged professionally and intellectually, the children benefit," she said.
A 2015 study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries found that daughters of working mothers are more educated and more likely to be employed at higher levels, as well as earn higher salaries. In the U.S., daughters of working moms earned 23 percent more income than daughters of stay-at-home moms. The study also noted that adult sons of working mothers spent more time on child care and housework.
LeBlanc implored HR professionals to offer flexibility to working mothers to help them maintain employment and tend to their children's needs. Many of these employees want to continue working and offering value to the organization.
"The fact that so many mothers returned to the workforce when work was remote tells you that there are many women who want that option to both work and be a mom," she said. "As a society, we are so fortunate to have the unique perspectives and contributions of women increasingly permeating corporate America."