We know that women have left the workforce at a rate four times higher than men during the pandemic, with Black women and women of color leaving at higher rates. We know the fact that the majority of the caregiving responsibilities continuing to fall on women’s shoulders is a huge factor underlying women being pushed out of the workplace. We know there are so many other issues that play into this, from the pay gap to the motherhood penalty to the lack of affordable childcare to the nonexistence of a national paid leave policy.
Women in the workforce are essential to our economy. Caregivers are essential to our economy. Currently, these trends show that traditional gender role expectations and unconscious bias magnified by the pandemic may be leading mothers in particular to exit the workforce in larger numbers.
Treating mothers as essential workers and paying them for their labor is one solution proposed this week in an open letter in the New York Times, calling on the Biden Administration to build a task force dedicated to creating a "Marshall Plan for Moms," which includes a stimulus check for mothers, as well as passing policies addressing parental leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity. The letter was signed by 50 women, including Tarana Burke, Eva Longoria, Charlize Theron, and Whitney Wolfe Herd.
I (virtually) sat down with the author of that letter, Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and author of Brave Not Perfect, to talk about how the plan might help reverse this trend of a generation going backwards on gender equality.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Holly Corbett: These have been topics in the news since spring, yet there has been no comprehensive public policy solutions addressing the number of women leaving the workforce during Covid. How did you come up with the idea of the Marshall Plan for Moms?
Reshma Saujani: I've been living this since March. When Covid happened, I became my son's Kindergarten teacher while supposedly being on maternity leave for my other child and being a CEO of a very large organization. I was seeing the pain and exhaustion I was feeling on my Zoom screen with the women that worked for me, and the women that I was working with. The breaking point for me was when schools closed again in New York City. When most public school districts decided to do hybrid learning, they didn't ask mothers if we would take this on. They just assumed that we would do it. You realize how little they value our labor.
It's a national crisis that's been affecting women and affecting our country. Women were the majority of the labor force right before Covid, and now our labor force participation is at what it was in the 1980s. That means that we miss out on innovation. We miss out on having diversity sitting at the table. We miss out on creativity. We miss out on women achieving their dreams and the opportunities that they are searching for.
Holly Corbett: Do you think that mothers should be considered a part of our essential infrastructure?
Reshma Saujani: I was thinking about that and asking myself, ‘Why are women leaving?’ It’s for two reasons. The first is we're in a childcare crisis and, in most households, moms still do most of the childcare. When schools closed, many of us became the teacher, nanny, tech support, cook, everything. We started supplementing our paid labor for a greater amount of unpaid labor. Many women didn't have the bandwidth to take on those extra hours at work, didn't raise their hand for those promotions, and many added a night shift because they had to homeschool their kids during the day.
The second reason why women are leaving the workforce is because the industries that have been hit by the recession have been in industries that have a disproportionate amount of women, such as service, hospitality, education, and healthcare. Many of those jobs aren't going to come back. We now have to invest in retraining. We have to look at the consequences that so many of our decisions during Covid have had on working women, because we're the ones who've beared the brunt of the pandemic.
Holly Corbett: For those who argue that motherhood is a choice, why do you think moms should be paid for their labor?
Reshma Saujani: It's not a choice right now. No one asked us. When they’re thinking about closing schools, for example, among considerations such as purchasing HVAC equipment, what tests to implement and what to do with teachers, they also need to consider, what is the cost to mothers, who are bearing the brunt of remote schooling? What is the cost on the economy when women leave the workforce, and the cost to women’s mental health and their children’s mental health?
All of those costs should be factored in. That’s why it's really important to assign a value to the unpaid, unseen labor of our mothers. For far too long, that labor has been taken for granted. I know it makes people feel uncomfortable, because we want to believe that motherhood is a choice. And I think in some ways, sometimes it is, but most of us would say, we didn't choose this. We didn't choose to homeschool our kids. We didn't choose for daycares to be shut down. We didn't choose to lose our jobs.
Holly Corbett: The unpaid labor of women helps support the world economy. In fact, a report from Oxfam estimates the value of the time women spent on unpaid care work is worth $10 trillion to the global economy each year. Do you think paying mothers might help shift perceptions when it comes to society better valuing the labor of caregivers?
Reshma Saujani: I think we have to demand it. If you look at the legislators and leaders who are making policy decisions, they're largely men. They aren’t thinking about these things in the same way as women, because it's clear that valuing mothers’ labor has not been a priority for our leaders. There’s a strong cultural norm that caregiving and household work is women's work, and we don't have a great track record in this country of valuing that work. We need to put a value on it, whether it’s a tax credit for childcare or a stimulus check. There are many different ways to approach this.
I always say, never waste a good crisis. Covid has shined a light on everything that is fundamentally broken. It has shined a light on the fact that we treat mothers as a social safety net. If we don't invest now in getting women's participation in the workforce back to what it was, it will dramatically affect our country now and in the next generation.
Holly Corbett: The Marshall Plan for Moms has three parts: the implementation of a task force, a monthly payment for what's traditionally been unpaid labor, and the passing of new policies. Can you share more about what this looks like?
Reshma Saujani: It’s a 360 plan. I don't think basic income will solve it alone, or childcare will solve it alone. Our economy and our work has fundamentally changed. This was a once-in- a-lifetime disruption.
There's an opportunity this year to really put these policies at the front and center of who we are as Americans. Joe Biden has said the first 100 days are an opportunity for us to find our values. If we're a country that takes care of its own, takes care of its young and takes care of its old, we should have affordable childcare. We should have paid leave. The fact that we're still fighting for it is ridiculous. Mothers shouldn’t make 71 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Biden is already proposing to bail out some of the childcare centers and provide a tax credit. For some American families, I think it is a start. Yet it can’t be for only this year; we need to extend these policies so that women, men, children, all people—and our country—can thrive.
Article originally published in Forbes.