The moms being pushed from the workforce right now aren’t failures

Moms aren't failures—it's our sexist culture that's failing us all.

mom working at computer with daughter

We need to stop saying (as so many media outlets have been, for months) that women have "dropped out" of the workforce this year.

First, it makes women sound like quitters when really, we've been crushed by the impossible, competing demands of caregiving (such as raising kids and caring for parents) and breadwinning (making money). Second, when headlines refer to women, they often really mean moms.

So let's call this what it is: Our culture's deeply ingrained sexism has pushed women from the workforce—especially moms and especially moms of color.


Here's how one NPR story describes what's been happening:

"While working fathers have not been spared in the pandemic, data collected by the Labor Department indicate that it's largely mothers who are dealing with children who are not in school full time this fall. In September, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce—four times the number of men who did."

Take a moment to notice how you might react differently to that news if the roles were reversed—if the headline was that men were leaving the workforce at four times the rate of women to care for their children. It would be incredibly surprising (and honestly thrilling). That alone tells us everything we need to know about how deeply entrenched sexism still is in our expectations of who does the caregiving—and who does the breadwinning—in American culture.

As CEO of New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter, observes, "Despite insisting on the equal dignity and value of men and women, we still regard men's traditional work of breadwinning as more valuable and important than women's traditional work of caregiving."

To be clear, I support men and women's right to choose how much time they do or don't spend on activities in either category; there's no right or wrong answer, as long as the arrangement works for the couple in question. What I object to are assumptions and automatic behaviors that empower ingrained societal expectations instead of individual choice. I also object to barriers—like the pay gap—that force people into caregiving or breadwinning roles based on their gender alone.

And then there's the language that suggests women aren't only leaving the workforce—we're "dropping out." When I think of a dropout, I think of Sean Penn's stoner character, Jeff Spicoli, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High—he's not technically a dropout, but he's a slacker who barely engages in school, and he epitomizes the dropout caricature many of us hold in our minds. I'm confident that few working-herself-to-the-brink-of-exhaustion mothers match this characterization. I'm also confident that in the long tradition of mom guilt (and its sibling, 'working mom guilt,' a term to which I object, because, hello, all moms work), such media characterizations make the women leaving their paid jobs feel like personal failures when really, it's our government and employers and partners (specifically, male partners in heterosexual couples—and no, not all of them, but many of them) that are failing. It's sexism that's failing all of us.

As a mother, to avoid feeling like leaving your paid work right now is a personal failing, is to swim upstream against messages the media is steadily sending your way.

To wit: Another NPR headline claims that women have abandoned the workforce. First, we abandoned our kids to do paid work (back in the 80s), and now we're abandoning our paid work to run online-school. What jerks we are! What flakes! No wonder the men are in charge (insert eye-roll emoji and press tongue firmly into cheek).

Meanwhile, a whole lot of men seem to be in denial about what's happening. More than 70% of fathers think they're splitting household labor equally with their partner during the pandemic—but only 44% of mothers say the same, according to the Women in the Workplace report from Lean In and McKinsey. You'll forgive me if I side with the moms. I've seen the uneven distribution of childcare in couples where each parent is also a breadwinner: Dad's got back-to-back conference calls, and since he earns more, Mom picks up the slack, leaving less time for her paid work.

As of September, one-quarter of all mothers who also worked outside the home were considering scaling back or quitting altogether, according to the Women in the Workplace report. Turns out, doing full-time paid work and full-time unpaid work is not, as they say, "sustainable."

So, to recap:

  • There's more to do on the homefront,
  • Mom's picking up the slack while pulling back from paid work, and
  • Dad says he's doing just as much at home as Mom is.

As I mentioned earlier, it's worse for women of color. (It's obscene how many situations that sentence could be in reference to.) For example, 57.1% of Hispanic women and 53.6% of Black women reported losing income between March and August, compared to around 41% among white women and men, according to a study released in October by the National Women's Law Center. What's more, more than one in six Black and Hispanic women reported not having enough food in the past week—more than double the rate of white or Asian American women.

The strain of being simultaneous caregivers and breadwinners is also far worse for parents whose jobs can't be done on a laptop from the corner of the bedroom. For example, female farmworkers are bringing their kids to work in the fields. And many parents are unable to bring their children to their workplace, for safety or other reasons. For those of us bemoaning the difficulties of supervising online school at the kitchen table, remember, too, the kids trying to find wifi hotspots in parking lots.

And of course, many women, moms included, have been laid off during this pandemic for reasons having nothing to do with the strain of simultaneous caregiving and breadwinning, in part because women are more likely to work in the service-related industries that have been hardest hit.

To rewind for a moment, I want to make it clear that NPR isn't the only outlet guilty of using language that casts shade on moms—not by a longshot. It's also CNN and the New York Times and CNBC and Bloomberg and, and, and. Sometimes the language these outlets use varies by article, with one article claiming moms have quit the workforce, and another claiming that the pandemic or the economy or "multiple demands" are driving or pushing or forcing mothers out.

To me, this makes it clear that (a) news outlets need clear editorial guidelines in place to inform coverage of this issue, and (b) those guidelines need to steer writers away from terms like "dropping out," and toward characterizations that more truthfully depict the factors pushing moms from the workforce.

I do want to acknowledge that in some cases, some of the moms who are leaving their full-time jobs could be making another choice, and have chosen to put their own paid work on the back burner. My point here is not to judge anyone or make anyone feel bad, only to point out that we need to have our own backs when we have the choice. In some families, for example, Dad's conference calls can only take precedence if Mom agrees that they do.

A New York Times article recently observed that when schools closed, America turned to their usual backup plan: mothers. (Sharing that article on Twitter, economist Nancy Folbre wrote, "Mothers as fallback, backup, safety net, and subsidy. But by conventional economic accounting measures, they contribute nothing.") As the article makes clear, the fact that men tend to earn more than women is usually the reason that women take on more on the homefront. But I think if we're deeply honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that there is some amount of auto-pilot going on here; in some cases, we could say, "Actually, honey, I can't move my call," or "I can't work from the living room while watching our two-year-old while you work from the quiet sanctuary of our home office." And if that means husbands need to be more vocal with their employers about the need for greater flexibility—well, huzzah.

To any mother reading this who is feeling guilty for not being able to miraculously work both paid and unpaid jobs full-time, I urge you to take the advice of journalist and Double Shift podcast host Katherine Goldstein: Stop feeling guilty, and start getting mad—and let that anger fuel action. Let's push the new administration to enact policies (such as those detailed here and, in far more detail, here) that support our ability to be simultaneous breadwinners and caregivers if we so choose.

This is all the more important because for many women, paid work isn't just about money; it's also an important part of identity.

Let's push back, too, against media depictions of us that ring false. We need to raise our voices, and make sure the stories being told about us are telling the truth: We aren't dropouts. We're rockstars.

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