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Pandemic created two classes of working mothers

Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on working mothers. During the pandemic, women exited the workforce in extraordinary numbers. The assumption was that working mothers left their jobs to manage childcare and home schooling when COVID closed the schools. People also assumed that the pandemic would negatively impact the birth rate.

Researchers have recently examined what really happened to women during COVID and the results emphasize the profound differences between women who are highly educated and women who are not.

All told, the pandemic wasn’t terrible for working mothers with college degrees. Like everyone else, these women left the office when COVID struck, but they did not leave their jobs. College-educated mothers simply began working from home. In some ways, it consolidated their base of operation and made it easier to focus on work. Another big advantage work-from-home offered these women was the opportunity to ditch the twice-daily commute.

Fertility rates among these women rose. College-educated working mothers actually produced slightly more children during the pandemic than they did before COVID-19. College degrees offered these women the flexibility they needed to both work and care for their children. Working from home also meant that they had better control over their (and their families’) exposure to COVID-19

Working mothers without degrees suffered real losses

That situation differed markedly for working mothers without college degrees. These women tended to fill lower-paying jobs, most of which required in-person work. They lost their jobs through layoffs and business closures; lost their childcare arrangements; left their jobs to manage childcare and schooling from home; did not return to work rapidly; and contracted COVID-19 more readily than their degreed counterparts.

Fertility rates among women without college degrees declined significantly, as did their workforce participation rate. Because they typically worked at lower-paying jobs, they had less cash on hand and were less likely to be able to sustain long periods of unemployment. Losing jobs meant losing insurance benefits. They lost ground economically, which they have yet to recover. Black, Hispanic, and single working mothers were disproportionately affected by job losses and the attendant consequences of that.

The differentiator between these two groups is clear: the presence or absence of a college degree. That often determined whether a woman went home to work or to sit.

These women have not returned to the workforce in the same way that wealthier working mothers have. Developing pathways for them to return to the workforce is essential. Those pathways don’t involve $12/hour jobs.

Large-scale retirements among Baby Boomers could open significant opportunities for women to make substantial economic gains. Community colleges have a role to play here, but only if they can offer degree programs that lead to high-wage occupations.

WCC’s strategy of shifting from degrees to certificates, its decision to close the Children’s Center, its lack of academic programs that can lift working mothers out of poverty exactly counteract what women need right now.

Our “Policy Board” is ultimately responsible for authorizing this failing strategy, which did nothing to help lower-income women during the pandemic and did much to hurt them.

Photo Credit: Marco Verch , via Flickr