The women's recession isn't over – especially for moms
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Good morning! We’re switching things up a bit this week.

Last month, I took photos for a story that ran in The 19th, which is a national nonprofit news organization that focuses on the intersections of gender, politics and policy. We’ve linked to The 19th’s stories before, but we felt this one was appropriate to run in full, because it features a woman who lives here in Iowa. Emily Way is one of the hundreds of thousands of women who left the workforce as a result of the pandemic.

If you or someone you know has also left the workforce and would like to share your story, please reach out to me at

That’s all for today, have a great week!

– Emily Blobaum, Fearless editor

The women's recession isn't over – especially for moms
One year since the start of the women’s recession, hundreds of thousands of moms have been forced to leave their jobs — and grapple with the consequences.
Jason and Emily Way feed their children, Leah and Owen. Jason works from home in a basement office and comes up to join them for lunch. Photo by Emily Blobaum.
Editor's note: This story was originally published by The 19th, a national nonprofit news organization that focuses on the intersections of gender, politics and policy. Fearless editor Emily Blobaum contributed photos to this article.

It struck her one morning last July, when an email arrived from her son’s day care. In a flash of clarity, Emily Way knew her time in the workforce was about to end.

The day care that their 2-year-old, Owen, attended was reopening in August, the email read, and families needed to start paying again if they wanted to save a spot. Way was seven months pregnant and on the cusp of unpaid maternity leave. She knew she and her husband couldn’t afford to send Owen back while she wasn’t getting a paycheck. Even if he did go back, what about the virus? Someone needed to care for both kids full time now. She knew it would be her.

But why did it feel like being forced to make a choice that was really no choice at all?

For four months, the Ways had balanced their lives on a thin rope as the pandemic raged. That rope kept Way employed while both parents split time caring for their son and working from home in Iowa City. But now, with no child care, no paid leave and a second child on the way, that rope felt like it was snapping. Way was falling through.

She emailed her husband, Jason, that July morning, cursing in frustration. "I won’t be getting paid. And we wouldn’t want to send him when we have a newborn anyway. I would envision sending him when we send the baby, so sometime early December in all likelihood."

"I’m not upset," she added quickly. "I’m just trying to figure this out because it looks like I will have to quit."

That night, the Ways confronted a reality that has unmoored working women across the country. Child care and paid leave, the two cogs in the wheel that keep many working moms employed, had fallen out for them. So, she, a 32-year-old administrative secretary for the county, would have to leave the job she had spent years trying to obtain. He, a research psychologist with a flexible job and significantly higher pay, would keep his.

Although Way knew it was best for her family, she wondered how it would fundamentally change her path as a working woman and as a person. How it would alter what she understood about who she was.

"My biggest fear," she told her husband that night, "is that being a stay-at-home mom is something that I’d always left on the table, something I might want to do. But I don’t want to lose my identity as a person."

So much of that identity was still tied to her work. She knew the privilege and purpose of being a stay-at-home mom, but part of her wasn’t ready to stop working just yet. The pandemic was forcing Way, as it had many mothers, to reconsider her relationship with her work. It largely hasn’t asked the same of fathers.

There was something else nagging at her, too. Way’s work also formed the basis for how others in her life saw her. She wanted her husband, especially, to still see her as a person with her own interests, value and importance, she told him then. Until that point in her life, her work played a big role in informing that view. She had graduated from college with an English degree in 2011, just at the tail end of the last recession and cycled through some internships and jobs that didn’t pay much. When she got the county role in 2015, it felt like a breakthrough for her career.

Still, in those early weeks of the pandemic, as Way worked from home from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., her two identities — as a mom and as a worker — collided again and again.

Emily Way prepares dinner. Photo by Emily Blobaum.
By September, when Way gave birth to her daughter, she had become one of the 863,000 women who left the workforce. An additional 275,000 left in January. Both times coincided with the start of new school semesters, when children typically return to classrooms. By March 2021, an estimated 1.5 million were still out of the workforce.  

In an economic fallout unlike any in American history, women like Way were not just kicked out of the labor force when jobs were cut, hours dwindled and layoffs began following the start of the pandemic in 2020. Many left of their own accord, forced out when the gaps in the social safety net — access to paid leave and child care — became gaping holes.

The worst of the job losses began one year ago, in April 2020, the month that kicked off the nation’s first women’s recession.

That month, about 3.5 million moms of school-age children shifted out of active work, moving into paid or unpaid leave, losing their jobs, or leaving the labor force completely, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half of all mothers were not working last April.

"This horrible April milestone — it’s the worst month in our labor market since we’ve been keeping track of the data since World War II," said economist Kathryn Anne Edwards, with the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank. "It’s hard to express the scope of how bad it was."

The losses in that time hit women-dominated fields like hospitality, which as an industry lost almost half of all its positions in April 2020. But the women’s recession has continued even as those jobs have returned because of the unequal impact on mothers in particular, according to several studies of the recession published in the past several months.

One, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that while many countries were also gripped by their own women’s recessions, few were as severe as the one in the United States. Women in the U.S. had less flexibility to work from home, less access to paid leave and fewer furlough options that would keep them employed while reducing their hours. Limited access to child care was also a key driver.

"The [gaps in] child care need, before the pandemic it was inches," Edwards said. But during the pandemic? "It was miles," she said.

From March to April 2020, 1 in 3 child care workers lost their jobs. Only about half of those losses have been made up, and gains have largely plateaued since September.

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In the past year, moms of school-age kids, those between 6 and 14, have spent three-quarters of their work time simultaneously taking care of children — 30% more than fathers, the study found. Moms were interrupted 50% more than dads during work hours in the pandemic, almost always because of child care.

That reduction in productivity could have dramatic consequences in years to come, contributing to the already existing "motherhood penalty," or the gap in pay that hurts mothers more than fathers and women without children.

"It is quite clear that the difference in the market behavior of women in the first place is closely related to combining careers and families — the difficulty of having accessibility to doing both is really what generates the motherhood penalty," said Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University who co-authored the study. "Anything that addresses that more fundamental problem is going to be helpful for women in general, but for those, in particular, who were affected by this crisis."  

Another study, from researchers at the University of Utah, Ball State University and the University at Buffalo, found that when moms took on all or almost all of the child care during the pandemic, they had a 50% chance of leaving the workforce or reducing their hours. When the child care was split more evenly between different-sex parents, the probability decreased to 15%.

Especially for parents of young children, the loss of child care was connected to a loss of employment for moms — but not dads, the study found.

Now, even as jobs trickle back, net job growth is still twice as large for men as for women, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). As of March, women still needed to regain 4.6 million more net jobs to get back to the levels of employment they saw before the start of the pandemic. Men need to regain 3.8 million.

That reality has created space for a conversation unlike any in American history about an unspoken truth regarding the nature of work and care, and how critical it is to keep the economy running, said C. Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of IWPR.

"The silence has been broken," Mason said. "The pandemic has shown us that the intersection of both those things are really important for women in the workplace and women in the labor market."

Left: New University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson. Center: Philanthropist Melinda Gates. Right: Drake University student body President Morgan Coleman.
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Adilla Arantika’s family has been her rock throughout her life. They’ve taught her life lessons, like doing the right thing, particularly when nobody is watching. They’ve given her inspiration, like when Adilla’s mother carried the family after Adilla’s father’s untimely death. Now as a leader at Principal, Adilla embodies these values on a daily basis, finding success at work and giving back to others from a similar background. READ THE FULL STORY>
Worth checking out
The professional women who are leaning out (The Atlantic). My hijab has always been my choice (The Cut). Eating disorders in teens have ‘exploded’ in the pandemic (New York Times). Women who said no to motherhood (New York Times). They've been beaten, trolled, threatened with sexual violence but refuse to be silenced (CNN As Equals). A population slowdown in the U.S. (The Daily podcast). These single women decided to get pregnant. The pandemic convinced them. (The Lily).
Join us for this month’s Fearless Friday event on May 21 from 8 to 9:30 a.m. As always, registration is free.

If you missed last month's event where we talked about discrimination and adversity, you can watch a replay on the Business Record's YouTube channel.
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