***This article is part I of a 3-part series by guest blogger by Ashley Reckdenwald at Working Mom Notes.
How we got here, why we are here, and how to fix it.
I have always worked full-time and that didn’t change with the birth of my children. Certain events throughout the course of my employment changed my workplace dynamic. After my third baby in five years, I was burning out. I worked as a physician assistant for an orthopedic practice and my husband works in construction; both professional cultures continue to exude antiquated patriarchal values.
“Why are you working?” was a question I would get from both sides. Would you ask a man that question? Why do men work? Beyond the income, it’s not so farfetched to believe that people enjoy working. It offers structure, teamwork, a sense of pride, example setting for their children, independence, and so much more. Work is a beautiful outlet. It makes me a better person and a better mother. But, being a mother and being a worker didn’t fit into the “system.” As Amy Westervelt so eloquently pointed out in her book, Forget ‘Having It All, “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children like they don’t work.” I had to choose. And with a world pandemic surging through the United States, there are no good options.
Of the 47 percent of working women in the U.S., 70 percent of them are working moms with children under 18 and of those, 40 percent are the primary or sole earners. An additional 23.2 percent of mothers are “co-breadwinners,” which means that their wages tally at least 25 percent of their total household earnings. A startling fact is that over half of job losses during COVID have been women. So, if mothers are the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of households, and 54 percent of overall job losses globally are women, where does it leave these families and how is this helping the economy?
Each and every one of us have been pushed into a corner, back against the wall, asked to make a choice: Work or child rear. We were making our long-awaited arrival into the business world as (almost) equals and have effectively been knocked back “in our place.” Women have actively left the workforce because we have been put in an impossible situation due to lack of options and support with regards to childcare and work culture. In the wake of a world pandemic, there is also the concern of public health and safety for our children. We are scared for our children’s health and wellbeing while also fearing job security. And if we are able to maintain job security, will it be at the expense of our children? Mom guilt is reverberating to all corners of the planet while we shuffle forward, doing our best as we burn out and become a shell of our prior selves. No one is winning.
Working moms have always needed more support than they have received. As they walk a tightrope, attempting to balance work on one side and home on the other, the rope is thinning and the weight on each side of the balancing pole keeps changing. One misstep and it all comes crashing down. Life as a working mom has always had its challenges, but these challenges have been exacerbated by a monumental shift. This shift only supports the current systemic structure and nothing more. History repeats itself time and time again but, it doesn’t have to.
PART 1: How We Got Here
As far back as 1869, women have been advocating for their space in the corporate world. The Knights of Labor Union fought for 8 hour workdays and equal pay for people of all genders and races. Unfortunately, the union fell out of favor as the concept that allowing women to work would diminish male respect for women so, back to the home we went. Then in 1903, women formed a new union called Women’s Trade Union League, which consisted of both middle and upper class women. These women provided legitimacy and allyship to women across all socioeconomic classes, which led to the Uprising of 20,000, the largest strike by female American workers to date. It resulted in better hours, equal division of work, and negotiation wages, which are all wonderful, but a much bigger and more impactful wave was formed. By creating fairer working conditions, it urged men to strike as well, which they did in 1910 in the Great Revolt. The overall outcome from these two strikes resulted in the “needle trades,” those involved in clothing manufacturing, to become the best organized in the United States. Women made massive gains in this strike because it solidified them as competent union activists and changed the mindset of many.
Not so different than today, the Great Depression was yet another huge setback for women. Many unions believed that men should be the first entitled to job openings. Once men were deployed in WWII, women finally received their opportunity to hold jobs normally taken by men. Women continued to push and by 1964, The Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. This helped push the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970. Decades of economic growth promoted an incline in female employment. This peaked in 1999, with 60 percent of women in the U.S. employed. We then hit yet another series of setbacks in the form of 9-11, the burst of a housing bubble, and a stock market crash. Since 1999, female employment has been on the decline all because of these economic regressions. Here we are in the year 2020 with yet another major setback in the form of a world pandemic.
When the economy is thriving, women are given an opportunity to advance their careers. However, when the economy is in a recession, women are the first to be directly impacted. Over the course of history, there has always been a direct correlation between a booming economy and female career opportunity and advancement. We have been tethered to this system for far too long. We know how this will end each and every time: women taking on the brunt of the country’s economic downfall. Change the system and we change the outcome.
Recent reports show that if at least one third of an executive committee is female, the company has more than ten times the net profit margin. Time and time again, women have proven their value. If we are ejecting ourselves from the workplace, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it is no surprise that the economy is tanking. If we are playing by a game of numbers, and women are paid, on average, eighty cents for every dollar a man is paid, then why are women the first to be let go? Beyond history repeating itself, the answer to this is twofold.
In 60 percent of households, women are not the breadwinners, nor the holders of the family insurance. Furthermore, women are bearing the burden of increased unpaid labor. We are being relegated to home responsibilities with no opportunity for career advancement. What can’t be ignored is that women’s earnings are often necessary for the family’s economic stability, but we’re being cast aside as if our contributions outside the home are meaningless.
*Stay tuned for part II and III of this series!