Alma Miranda was excited about landing a job at a company with a reputation as a great place for women to work. Her enthusiasm deflated quickly.
Miranda started as an accountant at North Chicago-based pharmaceutical firm AbbVie Inc. just as the pandemic hit the U.S. last spring, and was quickly thrust into juggling her new paying job with an unpaid position as de facto teacher to her three children: Cosette, 16; Isaak, 13; and Alyssa, 9. She says her bosses piled on assignments and ignored her requests for a slower pace until she could adjust to her dual identity.
“It was just too much between the job and then the schooling, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry,” Miranda says. “I was working 12 hours a day.”
She quit her job in May and opted not to seek another so she can help her children with their schoolwork. “It’s just easier this way,” she explains, adding that her husband is an essential worker who hasn’t been able to help much at home.
In a statement, AbbVie said it is committed to helping employees succeed. Part of that strategy includes offering flexibility that allows employees and managers to determine when, where and how the work is accomplished.
Flexible scheduling has become a common practice at most companies as the pandemic drags on, keeping physical schools and day care centers closed in many parts of the country. But it just isn’t cutting it anymore for many of the working moms who are trying to do their jobs while raising children. In September, 865,000 adult women dropped out of the workforce, more than four times the number of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, one-quarter of all women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, according to a study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.
A Growing Burden
“There’s no wishing this pandemic away,” says Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California-Hastings and director of its Center for Worklife Law. “If employers don’t come to terms with this [crisis], we will come out [of it] a workforce bleached of mothers.”
Study after study show that women have been shouldering more of the domestic and child care responsibilities this year. That typically means they’re on a virtual high-wire act that requires getting up early and going to bed late to complete the work they’re paid for so that they can tend to their children during the day.
In 55 percent of U.S. households, women are twice as likely to have primary or sole responsibility for cooking, cleaning, child care and education during the pandemic, according to a survey by Boston Consulting Group. Women are spending 15 more hours a week on domestic labor than men—equivalent to a day and a half.
The resulting exhaustion has led many women to quit their jobs or scale back their hours. Those who don’t have that option—such as single mothers—worry about their job performance and how it may affect their career path. Women still make 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to PayScale, and women of color earn 75 cents. Experts worry that the pandemic is destroying the strides women have made in the workforce and will put gender equity further out of reach.
New Work Structures Needed
“People are reaching a breaking point,” says Pam Cohen, Ph.D., president of WerkLabs, the research division of The Mom Project, a Chicago-based company that provides job-placement services and other support for mothers in the workplace. “They aren’t seeing a finish line. It’s like a never-ending ultramarathon.”
One upside of the pandemic, experts say, is that skeptical employers learned that people can work from home and be productive. The next step is for companies to add child care benefits and truly embrace job sharing and part-time work for career-track positions. “We need new work structures,” Cohen says.
Earlier this year, Verizon Communications Inc. started allowing employees to work part time but with full-time benefits, though the program had been in the works since 2019 when unemployment was at historic lows.
“The economy will rebound, and companies need a way to keep people tethered,” says Christy Pambianchi, Verizon’s chief human resources executive. “You can’t let all that talent walk out the door.”
Some organizations, especially larger ones, are stepping up to the COVID-19 challenge. Aside from Verizon, tech behemoths Google, Facebook and Microsoft are among the companies that have added more paid leave to accommodate employees. Analog Devices Inc., a tech company based in Norwood, Mass., and Synchrony Financial, a financial services firm in Stamford, Conn., hosted virtual activities for children over the summer and added elements such as tutoring for the fall. Cisco Systems Inc., a San Jose-based tech giant, is creating a special hybrid school/activity center where employees can leave their children while they work.
“We’re still figuring out what to do,” says Sylvia Mahlebjian, Analog Devices’ senior director of learning and leadership development. Companies are facing an unprecedented landscape, she notes, and Analog wants to ensure that it spends its resources wisely.
The situation has triggered more conversations at the company about addressing the needs of its female employees. “We’ve been working one way for so long,” Mahlebjian says. Meanwhile, managers are being told “to focus on outcomes, not hours,” she adds.
The hours for many working mothers are exceedingly long, however. TraLiza King, an Atlanta-based director in PwC’s tax department, says the interruptions from her two daughters, Armalin, 19, and Zoe, 5, drag out the workday as she stops and starts her projects to deal with their requests. “I’m exhausted to say the least,” says King, a single mom who is also caring for her mother. She says that “having no support with the kids is just a different beast.”
Even though her boss is very understanding of her situation, King worries about her career prospects and productivity. Communication with management is key in making clear what she can take on and when she needs to say no. “I make sure I’m checking in with [my boss] to let her know what’s going on,” King says. “You have to be a better version of yourself.”
Miranda Davis was extremely unhappy with the iteration of herself that was emerging as she tried to educate her two sons while working as a project manager at an educational publisher. “I was screaming at the kids,” says Davis, who requested that her employer’s name not be used. “I was feeling disgruntled at work.”
Davis says her employer was fine with her working at home but that “no one was discussing how the workload is getting done if you aren’t able to get to it in daytime hours.” She eventually took a six-week leave and started to work part time in July. “Something had to happen; otherwise, I was going to have a breakdown,” she explains, noting that her husband doesn’t have the option to work from home. The promotion she was discussing with her boss before the pandemic has been put on hold.
Working part time is going well, though Davis finds herself addressing business needs on her off-hours. “I sometimes wonder if it’s really worth it,” she says.
Mothers File Lawsuits
Some mothers—notably single moms and those who otherwise support their families—can’t pare back their hours, and their employers’ alleged inflexibility is resulting in lawsuits. Drisana Rios of San Diego sued her former employer, insurance brokerage HUB International, for gender discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination in a suit that alleges she was fired for failing to keep her two children quiet during business calls, according to various press reports. Rios also alleges that her boss badgered her for not having child care even though day care centers were closed. Representatives from both sides didn’t return requests for comment.
Single mother Stephanie Jones, former director of revenue management at Eastern Airlines LLC, sued the company and two of its executives for allegedly firing her for requesting leave under the federal coronavirus relief law to take care of her son because his school was closed. Passed in mid-March, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specific reasons related to COVID-19. In response to Jones’ request, one of the executives wrote in an e-mail that the new law was there as “a safety net and not a hammer to force management into making decisions which may not be in the best interest of the company or yourself.”
Jones says she was working from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. with few breaks as the Wayne, Pa.-based company shifted its strategy to provide repatriation flights for those stranded outside of the U.S. amid the pandemic. That meant she couldn’t help her 12-year-old son, Brian, with his schoolwork when he asked.
“It made me feel like a failure as a mother that I didn’t have the time to help him during the transition,” Jones says. “We also had connectivity issues. We couldn’t get into lesson plans.”
Jones requested to work from home and have two hours a day to help her son. She was expecting to discuss it with a company official on March 27 but instead was fired for unspecified “conflicts,” she says. The company has alleged that the FFCRA wasn’t in effect when the leave request was made, according to Jones’ lawyer, M. Frances Ryan, who denies that claim. Eastern’s lawyer declined to comment, and company representatives didn’t return requests for comment.
Jones had relocated to Pennsylvania to accept what she once called her “dream job” with Eastern. But in October, unable to afford her rent, she and her son moved to Texas to stay with family.
The Digital Divide
Cisco Systems is taking a big step to ease the pressure on its working parents. In late August, it started an onsite, all-day program for employees’ children at its San Jose, Calif., office, from kindergarteners to 12-year-olds. The company isn’t developing any curriculum, but it hired teachers to help students with their remote learning, as well as to keep them occupied after the school day ends.
“When we realized schools in the Bay Area weren’t going to reopen, we said, ‘What can we do?’ ” says Katelyn Johnson, senior manager of global benefits at Cisco. “Parents, particularly women, because they do carry more of the load, were not going to neglect children’s physical, emotional or academic needs.”
The company had a head start on developing safety protocols in its San Jose day care center because the facility, which initially had been closed due to the pandemic, was later opened for children of first responders. There are daily temperature checks, and masks and social distancing are required. Children are assigned to small groups with a dedicated teacher, and intermingling is prohibited to limit infection risk. Parents are not allowed in the center.
Cisco is exploring other benefits, too, such as providing private tutors or hiring a teacher to instruct a small group of children in what are known as learning pods, pandemic pods or micro schools. The concept has become popular in affluent neighborhoods throughout the country where parents hire tutors to teach their children or band together with other families to form small classes. Pods eliminate the risk of being in a large group and provide children with more attention and guidance than virtual classes, according to advocates.
The pods have also been called out as a symbol of the income inequity that the pandemic has laid bare. Wealthy families can hire tutors, buy the latest technology and renovate their homes to create distinct learning spaces. Children from lower-income families may lack reliable Internet connections, up-to-date computers and a quiet place to learn.
Synchrony is exploring that dichotomy as it develops strategies for its working families, including the roughly 10,500 employees who work at its call centers, many of whom are women. Liz Heitner, senior vice president for talent and transformation, says that while Synchrony pays call center workers fairly, company leaders worry that some employees’ children may lack the essentials they need for school.
“We are aware of the digital divide,” Heitner says. Synchrony gave about 400 Chromebooks to employees based on their needs. It also expanded its backup child care and mental health benefits.
“This is one of the most stressful times to be a working mother,” Heitner says.
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
Photographs by Jeff Dahlgren, Patrick Heagney and Colin Lenton for HR Magazine.