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Reopening schools helped mothers with school-age children get back to work. So what happened to their male partners?

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By Leslie Albrecht

The pandemic knocked millions of people out of the workforce, and reopening schools helped one group in particular return to their jobs. 

Married mothers with school-age children went back to work when schools welcomed students back into classrooms, but reopening schools didn’t appear to have the same effect on other categories of workers.

Those are the findings of a working paper circulated Tuesday by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper was co-authored by economists at the University of Oregon, Claremont McKenna College and San Diego State University.

“K-12 reopenings are associated with significant increases in employment and hours among married women with school-aged children, with no measurable effects on labor supply in comparison groups,” the researchers wrote.

However, students going back to classrooms had no significant effect on the number of hours worked by single mothers, women with no children, or married fathers who were the primary caregivers for their children, the authors found.

“The labor-supply effects of school reopenings that we find for married women and the stark lack of any effects for other groups underscore the importance of caregiving in creating the gender-wage gap,” the researchers concluded.

The gender wage gap refers to the disparity between women’s and men’s earning power. For example, women earned 84% of what men earned in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center .

The pandemic provided a rare glimpse into how caring for children affects women’s ability to earn a living, and gave the researchers a chance to study “a supply-side shock to married women’s labor force participation and, more broadly, the labor market costs of changes in caregiving demands.” 

The researchers faced a challenge in gathering their data because schools across the country reopened at different times, and schools had different policies about whether students attended class in-person. The researchers used mobile-phone data from SafeGraph, a consumer tracking company, to measure foot traffic at K-12 schools as a proxy for local school reopenings.

They compared the foot traffic to pre-pandemic levels and examined labor market data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They confirmed that the mobile phone data correlated with school openings by consulting the COVID-19 School Data Hub , a crowd-sourced database led by economist Emily Oster .

The pandemic’s impact on women

“Our results suggest that married women with school-aged children changed both whether and how they worked based on whether schools reopen in person,” the researchers wrote, meaning that school openings appeared to affect both whether married women were employed and whether they worked remotely or in-person at their workplaces.

School reopenings were associated with a 3.3 percentage point increase in employment outside the education sector for married women with school-aged kids, a .76 percentage point increase in weekly work hours outside of the education sector and a 3.3 percentage point reduction in reported remote work.

“How large are these impacts? At the peak of the COVID-19 recession, married women with school-aged kids saw their employment drop by 15 percentage points. Therefore a 3.2 percentage point increase would represent 21% of the gains in employment seen by those women since the pandemic began,” the researchers wrote.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women’s working lives. A March 2021 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 80% of people who had left the workforce since the start of the pandemic were women. By September 2021, the share of mothers of children aged 13 and under who were employed was almost 4% lower than before the pandemic, the Associated Press reported . The decline was just 1% for fathers.  

The NBER paper shines a light on some key questions about women’s career advancement. Women’s participation in the labor force soared from 1930 to 1990, but hit a roadblock around 1990, and since then, married women’s “employment and earnings have stagnated far short of equality with those of men,” the researchers noted. 

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So what about their husbands?

The high cost of childcare, inflexible jobs, and a “lack of policy support for working parents” are among the possible explanations for that stagnation, the paper authors wrote. There’s also the fact the mothers spend more of their time than their male partners on domestic duties and child care, and that even highly-educated women and women who earn more than their husbands “contribute more to housework and are more likely to scale back their careers after having children than their male counterparts,” the researchers wrote, citing previous research.

The pandemic has allowed a host of researchers to examine those factors, almost in real time. Previous research by the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve suggested that in states that shut down early amid the spread of COVID-19, mothers were more likely than fathers to take time off their jobs to care for children . They were also more likely to work more hours on nights and weekends while balancing domestic duties, the study found.  

Study co-author Misty Heggeness, a U.S. Census Bureau principal economist, wrote that it’s not enough to strive for gender equity in C-suites and on corporate boards. Those gains don’t mean much if parents, especially mothers, lack affordable child care while they work, she said.

“Without these systems, mommy will forever be stressed and vulnerable to career scarring during any major crisis like this pandemic or any other event that triggers an increase in domestic tasks within her household,” Heggeness wrote.

See also: More than half of working moms say their job performance has slipped during the pandemic

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