Work Or Family, A Tough Call For Women In The Workforce : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Millions of women left the workforce during the pandemic. Today, a story about a mother's tough decision to leave work and an economist's view on the labor market for women during the pandemic.
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Women, Work And The Pandemic

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Women, Work And The Pandemic

Women, Work And The Pandemic

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

We all have our breaking points, the moments that just push us over the edge and force us to make a big change or take some kind of major action or just lose it. For Priscila DeMaris, this breaking point happened last April. She was working from her home near Austin, Texas. Her kids were Zoom schooling.

PRISCILA DEMARIS: I got up from my desk to go get a cup of coffee, and I overheard the teacher chastising my son over his posture on Zoom. And I - and it sounds so silly, but honestly, like, something in me snapped.

VANEK SMITH: Priscila has three kids, and two of them were not thriving in Zoom school. She was worried they weren't learning anything and falling behind. Meanwhile, she was in the teeth of tax season. Priscila is an accountant, and she was spending most of her day on the phone with business owners who were in financial and emotional crisis.

DEMARIS: People who never in a million years thought that they would have to fire, and they're firing entire offices' worth of people. And so we're trying to figure out how we can get their cash flow so that they can hang on to these people a little bit more.

VANEK SMITH: Meanwhile, Priscila's husband was an essential worker, a doctor. He was at the hospital all the time dealing with the pandemic, and Priscila was always worried about him. She was waking up at 5 a.m., going to bed at midnight, drinking inhuman amounts of coffee, trying to help her kids with Zoom school. And in the midst of all these things, her son's teacher is criticizing his posture.

DEMARIS: I was like, we are in the middle of a pandemic. I'm having to field phone calls of people firing everybody. My husband is, like, trying to accommodate a surge here. And you're critiquing my son's posture (laughter). I was like, this is ridiculous. Why are you subjecting - why - of all the things to - anyway, so something in me snapped. And then I was like, this - I can't continue this on. I can't - like, my kids are not doing well with the online learning. I can't do my job. My house is a mess. I can't do this.

VANEK SMITH: Priscila made a decision in that moment, a big life decision. She decided to leave her job.

This is the INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Millions of women left their jobs during the pandemic because of child care. Now that schools are reopening and lockdowns are lifting, many women are going back to work, but many aren't. Today on the show, we look at women, work and the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Leaving the workforce was not an easy decision for Priscila DeMaris. She loved her job as an accountant. She even loved tax season.

DEMARIS: I know people are like, oh, my gosh, how can you actually like that? But I do. And it was - I loved working. I loved my job, and I loved the firm that I was at.

VANEK SMITH: Priscila says her husband had always been an active parent and very supportive of her career. But also, he was a doctor in a pandemic, and his schedule had no flexibility. He couldn't work from home, so Priscila says the home situation was just on her.

DEMARIS: If I could have done it all, I would have loved to do it all, but I just - I couldn't. Yeah. And I can't quit my kids, so job it is.

VANEK SMITH: Priscila became one of the 4 million women across the U.S. who left her job last year. A lot of progress has been made in terms of gender equity and housework, but women report doing about 50% more housework than men do. And a lot of recent research has found the lion's share of the extra child care and housework created by the COVID pandemic fell to women. Also, working women were especially hard-hit by COVID because women are so concentrated in the service, care and hospitality sectors, and those were just decimated by the pandemic. And all of this worries Allison Schrager. Allison is an economist with the Manhattan Institute. And when I showed up to talk to her, she showed me this data she'd been looking through all plotted out on an Excel spreadsheet.

This is some very high-level Excel. I don't even know what I'm looking at.

ALLISON SCHRAGER: This is actually just for my own personal sort of information for our talk. I didn't realize we...

VANEK SMITH: Really? You were just like - made an Excel sheet just for you.

SCHRAGER: It helps me process

VANEK SMITH: I think you're my hero.

Allison has been watching the employment-to-population ratio. It is a measure of the share of women over the age of 20 who are working. That number has been mostly edging up since the 1950s, at least until the pandemic hit.

You can see a huge drop-off there.

SCHRAGER: Yeah, yeah. In April 2020, 47.6% of women were employed.

VANEK SMITH: So, like, more women than not.

SCHRAGER: Were out of the - yeah, not working.

VANEK SMITH: That has not been the case since the early '80s. Things, by the way, have improved. Right now about 55% of women over the age of 20 are working. Still, nearly 2 million women who left work during the pandemic have not come back. Allison says for some women, that might have been a personal choice. They enjoyed staying home and decided to keep doing it. But she worries that for many women, this isn't a choice. They are being forced by finances or educational needs or family circumstance to stay out of the workforce.

What does it mean for an economy?

SCHRAGER: Well, you do want more people working - certainly not good.

VANEK SMITH: And what does it mean for women specifically?

SCHRAGER: Well, it depends how much time they spend out of the labor force. They might get scarring if they spend a lot of time out of the labor force and sort of lose their work mojo.

VANEK SMITH: Scarring - this is an economic term, and it refers to the permanent damage that can happen to someone's career due to a one-time event. And data has shown that even a small break from work can have a permanent and pretty devastating effect on a woman's salary and promotion for the rest of her career. Allison says the number of women getting back to work is rising. Still, that perfect bounce back economists had been hoping for when schools reopened and kids went back to school has not happened. And the problem could get worse. Since the pandemic, childcare is harder to come by, and it's gotten a lot more expensive. And that means going back to work might not be economically possible for many women anymore.

Priscila DeMaris says she's lucky. Her husband earns enough that she is able to stay home. And also, financial concerns will not keep her from going back to work. Even still, she says, going back to work has been a lot harder than she expected. At first, she was going to go back to work in the fall of 2020, but then her kids' school did not reopen - still remote - so she stayed home. Then her family started planning a move for her husband's job, and the date of her going back to work got pushed back and back and back.

DEMARIS: It was difficult to keep pushing it because it was like, OK, I'm putting myself on hold again. And then at some point in there, you think, oh, my gosh, am I ever going to get back? Am I going to be stuck here? And I have all this education, all this knowledge, and it's going to waste. And I had or have a lot of pride wrapped up in my career and my job and being good at it. It's like a whole part of me that was super-important no longer exists.

VANEK SMITH: Priscila says she is keeping up with all the latest tax laws and changes in her profession so she can jump back in when the moment comes. But as hard as this last year has been, Priscila says she spends a lot of time thinking about the women who could not leave their jobs, the women who stayed, like single moms or women who could not afford to quit their jobs. She says she's really curious about them.

DEMARIS: I have to say the women who managed to do it all, I want to know their story. Like, how did they pull it off, seriously? - because it's a lot. And maybe they didn't have the luxury to quit, so they just made it work. And honestly, I'm curious how they made it work because I've really tried. And I just - didn't matter how much caffeine I drank, I just couldn't pull it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Emma Peaslee and fact-checked by Michael He. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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