LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The gender wage gap is less than it's ever been. Full-time working women make about 82 cents for every dollar men make. But the pandemic might reverse that progress, and economists say child care is a big reason. Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: These days, Mamie Brown is getting up earlier than ever.
MAMIE BROWN: A typical day for me starts about 4:30 to 5. I actually naturally wake up. I think part of that's my anxiety right now. And then what I do very first thing in the morning is catch up on to-do's around the house and paperwork.
KURTZLEBEN: She's a self-employed lawyer in Fairbanks, Alaska, and she and her husband are juggling their work and their kids, aged 8 and 4. When schools closed in the spring, the children's classes moved online. That reconfigured Brown's workday as she helped her children with schoolwork.
BROWN: You know, I always thought, oh, yeah. OK. If I can't work at 8 and 10 and noon, I'll just work at 7 p.m. But pretty quickly, you realize that, you know, I have my productive hours, but I have to put my productive hours on hold because my daughter has mandatory things she has to do for her curriculum.
KURTZLEBEN: She actually does earn more than her husband. He manages rental properties and does repair work and renovations, work he can't really do from home. But he gets paid more quickly than she does as a one-woman law firm who has to bill her clients before she can get paid. That means Brown is now doing the bulk of the childcare.
BROWN: Right now, he has an opportunity to get cash faster than me. And even though it might not be technically as much as I could make if I was doing a full 40 hours, definitely because it's cash in the hand, that's better than cash in the bush.
KURTZLEBEN: She's far from alone in struggling to balance work and children, according to Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University.
CLAUDIA GOLDIN: We have some information that shows - surprise, surprise - the workload of parents has increased astronomically.
KURTZLEBEN: But, Goldin says, the workload has grown more for moms.
GOLDIN: That for mothers has increased to a degree that it's very difficult to find uninterrupted time to do their work if they're working at home.
KURTZLEBEN: And for Brown and many other women, fewer hours of work, of course, equals less pay. Even with her struggles, Brown is in a privileged position. Her husband helps with the child care, and she can work from home. She's also white, a group that overall earns more and has lower unemployment than their Black and Latina peers.
Here's Michelle Holder, economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
MICHELLE HOLDER: Even when jobs start to be regained, women of color are still going to - it's going to take that group longer to sort of recover from this pandemic.
KURTZLEBEN: In addition, tens of millions of essential workers can't work from home, and many of them need child care in order to do their jobs. Those essential workers are disproportionately women.
HOLDER: We relied quite heavily on women during this pandemic not only for work done in the home but, you know, for work done outside the home. We saw that it was women out there - women as nurses, women as home health aides, as nursing assistants.
KURTZLEBEN: For those and other families, the need for child care could intensify this fall when schools reopen - or don't. That could be make or break for many families, including Mamie Brown's in Alaska.
BROWN: If we get to the point where the school district does not open in the fall, that means that one of us is going to have to take that full-time lead of being that educator for our kids on top of child care.
KURTZLEBEN: If that happens, she says, she will likely be the one at home with the kids. Already, women have lost more jobs than men during the pandemic. And because spending time out of work tends to lower people's earnings later on, that could widen the gender wage gap for years to come. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.
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