Column

The Pandemic Isn’t Forcing Moms Out of the Workforce — Dads Are

Let’s be crystal clear about why working mothers are suffering

Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Washington Post published a piece warning that the “coronavirus childcare crisis will set women back a generation,” echoing a FiveThirtyEight article from earlier in the week headlined, “How the Pandemic Could Force a Generation of Mothers Out of the Workforce.” Similarly, while the Wall Street Journal says “Women’s Careers Could Take a Long-Term Hit from Coronavirus Pandemic,” CNN predicts that “The Pandemic is Threatening to Erase Women’s Progress.”

I’m glad to see the broad concern for protecting women’s workplace advancements, but there’s a conspicuous missing piece here: dads.

It’s true that the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 is already having an outsized impact on American moms, but that’s not purely because of the virus itself — it’s because the country has seemingly given up on the idea that fathers will step up and do an equal share of parenting, even if it would save their wives’ careers.

Right now, article after article is predicting a grim rollback of women’s workplace gains: Job losses are disproportionately impacting women, experts believe women’s earnings will take a hit, and the lack of childcare — plus workplaces that can be hostile to parents — are all painting a picture of an inevitable feminist depression. In April, women’s labor force participation even shrunk to 54.7% — a rate similar to that of the 1980s.

A woman’s working hours need to be valued in the same way men’s are.

The truth, though, is that most of this is preventable. The danger to women’s workplace progress isn’t unstoppable; men simply need to make the same kind of sacrifices that women have been making since the pandemic started. (And for years before that.)

It’s not that difficult. No more expecting mom to be the default parent when a kid needs help on a classroom Zoom or a sandwich for lunch. Enough of fathers locking their office doors, or — in one memorable case — training his young children to yell out his wife’s first name as a way to get her attention. A woman’s working hours need to be valued in the same way men’s are.

We also need to recognize that the way women get dragged into the role of primary caregiver isn’t always explicit — it’s insidious. Maybe a husband tells his wife that she’s just “better” at handling the toddler’s tantrums, or that the 10-year-old won’t listen to him the way she listens to their mom. He doesn’t remember the name of the kids’ pediatrician — because he’s not the parent who takes off of work when they’re sick — to make their appointment, so his wife might as well do it. He has no idea what his daughter’s shoe size is, or even that she needs new shoes at all. It’s the “myth of the male bumbler” — the absurdity of men believing themselves fit to run the world, but unable to figure out how to do the laundry or put a child down for a nap.

Fathers are completely capable; many just choose not to be.

Saving women’s careers isn’t just about ensuring that individual men step up. The way we talk about the childcare crisis solely as a women’s issue is self-fulfilling — and it’s irresponsible.

For reporters: Instead of another article on how moms are struggling to juggle their work and childcare, what about a piece — or several — on how fathers are doing too little? Let’s be direct: Men’s refusal to do an equal share of domestic work during the pandemic — a decision that could roll women’s rights back by decades — is a national scandal. Why aren’t we covering it as such?

We can’t be above a little old-fashioned shaming. Not when the stakes are this high (and the behavior this shameful). The pandemic isn’t forcing mothers out of the workforce — it’s just shining a light on long-standing inequalities. The coronavirus doesn’t care who does the dishes or who helps with homework. So when we talk about these issues, let’s be precise: Covid-19 may be making it harder for parents to balance their home and work lives; but it’s dads who are making it harder for moms.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

Get the Medium app