The Impact Of Child Care On Women And The Labor Market : The Indicator from Planet Money Millions of mothers left work during the pandemic. Decades of progress seemed lost. Is it time to reconsider how our economy handles child care and the workplace?

Child Care Conundrum

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So, Darian, I wanted to talk with you today about an issue of great economic importance.


That's what I'm here for.

VANEK SMITH: I knew you'd be into it. Here it is - crying babies.

WOODS: Crying babies - carry on.

VANEK SMITH: So a little bit of context - this came to me while I was watching an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." I have been hardcore bingeing "Grey's Anatomy" for weeks.

WOODS: No shame.

VANEK SMITH: And in the clip that I'm about to play, in this moment, there are two female surgeons talking in the operating room. And one of the female surgeons has a baby in tow because her child care fell through.


CHANDRA WILSON: (As Miranda Bailey) Grey, you know why men think they can run the world and women can't? - because of crying babies.

ELLEN POMPEO: (As Meredith Grey) I was hoping no one would hear it.

WILSON: (As Miranda Bailey) We can all hear it. It's pulling your focus. OK, this is about world domination. If we're going to take over, we need to have our babies crying somewhere other than the ICU.

VANEK SMITH: Not sure about the whole world domination thing, but this moment really stuck with me because, truly, the economic impact of crying babies is enormous. Child care shapes our economy and the careers of working parents in so many ways. This is especially true for women. And in fact, child care is one of the main reasons that women cite for hanging back from taking really intense jobs like CEO or surgeon or law partner. It is also a big part of the pay gap. Women will often choose a particular job or choose to work full time in order to accommodate child care.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today on the show, crying babies - how motherhood affects women's careers and also how it right now offers a unique opportunity to address these issues.


VANEK SMITH: So, Darian, I recently had a book come out. It's called "Machiavelli For Women." And while I was researching the book, I was looking through all kinds of economic data, and I think that the data about motherhood shocked me the most. I mean, don't get me wrong - women have seen enormous progress in the workplace. Like, the share of women who work has been growing at a pretty fast clip. In fact, a couple of years ago, women hit this workplace milestone.

BETSEY STEVENSON: By December of 2019, women held the majority of jobs where there's an employer.

WOODS: This is Betsey Stevenson, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.

STEVENSON: And I will never forget doing an interview in January of 2020 and saying I can't imagine what could happen that would lead women to fall behind men again any time in the next decade. Turns out...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Turns out.

STEVENSON: ...What I couldn't imagine was a global pandemic...

VANEK SMITH: Right. Right.

STEVENSON: ...That would cause all children to be sent home from school.

WOODS: I mean, I'm going to give her a break for that one.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I know.

WOODS: And look - the pandemic was extremely hard on parents, but especially hard on women. Millions of women dropped out of the workforce to care for children and family, to educate their kids. Thirty years of progress was lost in terms of the share of women in the workforce.

VANEK SMITH: So to be clear, women have started going back to work, especially as schools have reopened, but the pace has been pretty slow. In fact, at the rate that we saw last month, it will take nearly a decade for women to gain back all of the jobs they lost in the pandemic. And Betsey says a lot of these women have basically been forced to make a really difficult choice to leave their jobs and careers.

STEVENSON: You know, and a lot of people are like, look - this is the choices families are making. Of course, they're choices. They're choices in terrible circumstances.

VANEK SMITH: And there are a couple of main issues that come into play around child care and the economy. And one of the big ones is cost.

WOODS: Child care can be really expensive, and that's getting worse. Over the last year, more than 100,000 jobs were lost in the child care sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that has been pushing up prices for child care.

VANEK SMITH: And because women tend to earn less than men do, it will often just make more economic sense in a mixed gender couple for the man to continue working and for the woman to stay home.

STEVENSON: In a world where they don't have control over a lot of things - they don't have control over the fact that the man in the household is earning more or that the man in the household can't more easily take time off.

VANEK SMITH: But money, of course, is not the only issue when it comes to women leaving the workforce for child care reasons. Another big one is flexibility.

WOODS: Julia Pollak is a labor economist with ZipRecruiter. She's been working from home with two kids - a toddler and a new baby. And Julia says during the pandemic, millions of women were also juggling work, housework, setting up kids with Zoom school. And for a lot of them, it just became too much. But a lot of the reason for this, she says, is because of the culture of the workplace, which doesn't like to make those particular accommodations.

JULIA POLLAK: I find that, in my life, I'm actually able to get as much work done as I was before the birth of my children. Just now and again, I need to jump up for, you know, a couple of minutes when the baby wakes up - maybe an hour or so - and put her back to sleep. And then she's asleep for another three- to four-hour block, and I can actually get a ton done. The problem is, it's very hard to find a work arrangement where that kind of flexibility is available.

WOODS: Julia says it sounds a lot better to say you're in another meeting or you had a long call with a client than it does to say, hey, I need to feed my baby, put her to sleep, and I'll call you back in 30 minutes.

POLLAK: We all know of situations where huge rooms of people have waited 30 minutes, an hour, for a male CEO. So we are flexible with all kinds of situations. We're just not so flexible for child care.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Oh, I think I hear - it's a little...

POLLAK: Yeah, sorry.

VANEK SMITH: It's that little voice.

POLLAK: (Laughter) My husband...

VANEK SMITH: What's her name?

POLLAK: ...Just handed me the baby. She woke up - Amira.

VANEK SMITH: Amira, hi. How's she doing? I was like, that sounds like a little baby, like the little, like...


VANEK SMITH: ...Noises.

POLLAK: He handed her over to me, and she just started eating right away (laughter). So I'm like, oh, no, what do I do?

VANEK SMITH: Is this her first broadcast interview?

POLLAK: This is her first broadcast interview. Yes, it is.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, is there also in effect, in that way, that the businesses are less...

POLLAK: Sorry, let me put this baby down. She's making too much noise in the background here.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I actually kind of love it. I feel like it's, like, a really beautiful metaphor. But yes, take your time. Do what you need to do.

And just because of little moments like these, little five-, 10-, 30-minute interruptions, Julia says, mothers end up being paid less, promoted more slowly, and their work is viewed far more critically than that of women without children. People assume mothers are not serious about their work or dedicated to their jobs.

POLLAK: Well, I can understand why so many women, when they are in that situation - even though it'll only be a 30-minute interruption and they'll be able to get right back to work - just give up on the whole enterprise of work altogether.

WOODS: Still, Julia points out that right now is a huge opportunity for women in the workplace because not only are many companies a lot more open-minded about working from home or making more flexible work situations, but also, workers have a lot more power right now. So employers are more willing to talk to parents and work out situations that will help them. Economist Betsey Stevenson says she's hopeful.

STEVENSON: I have seen just a revolution in how managers are thinking about providing workplace flexibility and about helping to reduce discrimination against parents.

VANEK SMITH: Betsey says Congress proposing things like the child tax credit and free pre-K - these are all signs that the government is starting to address these issues as well. She points out that in Europe, government initiatives like free child care and months of guaranteed parental leave have increased the number of women in the workplace.

WOODS: Betsey hopes that the conversations that have been started during the pandemic will translate into some solutions and options for women so they won't have to choose between having a career and having a family.

STEVENSON: You know, I do think there's a big question here. We're at a pivot point. Are we going to do something different? Is child care a personal issue or an issue that we should think about as being essential to a modern, you know, 21st century, developed economy?

VANEK SMITH: Betsey says there is just a huge opportunity right now for policymakers and companies to address these issues and hopefully, Darian, make the economic impact of crying babies a little smaller.


WOODS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin. And it was fact-checked by Kaitlyn Nicholas. THE INDICATOR's edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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