Lack of Child Care Associated with Higher Unemployment among Women Compared to Men
States that closed childcare facilities at the beginning of the pandemic saw a reduction of 611,000 positions among working mothers.
From housework to child care, women spend more time on unpaid labor than men, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this gender inequality. When many states mandated the closure of child care facilities at the start of the pandemic, working mothers likely assumed a higher burden of additional childcare duties.
Now, a new study led by a School of Public Health researcher has found that state-level child care facility closures were associated with a greater reduction in employment among women in comparison to men during the first year of the pandemic.
Published in the journal JAMA Health Forum, the study uses data from the SPH-led COVID-19 US State Policy Database, along with census and survey data from the Current Population Survey, to examine childcare facility closures and overall changes in employment among women and men in households with children under six years old from January 2020 to December 2020. The researchers found that in states that shut down childcare services, the likelihood of a woman being employed decreased by 2.6 percentage points—equating to an estimated 611,000 positions among 23.5 million working mothers with young children.
“We know from past research that women tend to take on more responsibilities for doing housework and taking care of children, and the pandemic was no different,” says Yevgeniy Feyman, study lead author and a PhD student in health services research at BUSPH. “Parents of young children, in particular, had to figure on the fly how to manage without schools and childcare in many states. Our study found that this ‘motherhood penalty’ led to women leaving their jobs at higher rates than men.”
The researchers observed the largest differences in employment between men and women among households with Hispanic and White individuals, and that mothers’ work hours were reduced by one hour in states with childcare facility closures. While the year-long study period showed that employment differences by sex began to dissipate after state-level child care closures were lifted in June 2020, employment estimates did not return to pre-pandemic levels, nor were they equal between men and women, by December 2020.
These study findings support existing research that has shown that the labor market penalizes women much more than men for having children, Feyman says, and suggest that well-intentioned policies can exacerbate gender and economic inequities. Additional state-level policies that support women in families with children could address these issues, the researchers concluded.
For example, “to help mitigate some of these harmful effects, governors could follow the lead of other states and enact universal paid family leave policies,” Feyman says. “In New York, such a policy saw increased use of leave by both fathers and mothers.”
Other policies that help women return to work faster, such as a tax credit or deduction for firms that rehire workers, could also be useful but may be more challenging to implement, he says.
“Future work on this front should examine whether some states were able to mitigate the unintended consequences of childcare closures and other public health policies,” says Feyman. “If some states were more successful at doing so than others, that could provide a model for future policy changes.”
The study was co-authored by Kevin Griffith, assistant professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Naomi Fener, nurse practitioner at the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.