A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study published in mid-October estimates that the financial costs of the COVID-19 pandemic will be more than $16 trillion. However, the true costs of the COVID pandemic may be more insidious.
For example, it has become clear that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted working mothers — left to navigate this new terrain of employee-caretaker without much help. That potentially translates to a rollback of gains we’ve seen across industries, unrealized potential in boardrooms, and a generation of women who are forced to stop walking the well-tread path of their predecessors. This time, it isn’t an established policy keeping them at home with the kids, but rather the absence of a plan to account for parents’ roles as both earners and caregivers.
This is a unique time in history because the integration of work and life evolved almost overnight as work-from-home orders were dictated. Women have been able to have fulfilling careers because they have partners who share in childcare responsibilities or because children were in school, and perhaps afterschool activities and daycare. Now, back-to-back team calls, chasing people down through email and phone whom you used to run into in the break room, days that start earlier and end later because your commute is done without leaving your home, is coupled with tending to children who may need help connecting to their virtual classroom (or the content itself), until mid-day when you need to make them something to eat.
Today’s predicament is causing so much stress and additional work that up to 2 million women are considering leaving the workforce, according to McKinsey & Company. Landing them back with their children can be seen as suddenly reverting to the stereotypical 1950s American housewife. Motherly, an online content hub founded by and produced for mothers, says it this way: “But the truth is that American motherhood has the veneer of being modern, without any of the structures to support our actual lives today. … We have the pressure to work, without the support of paid maternity leave or affordable childcare.”
Fortune surveyed 600 female leaders from the Most Powerful Women community in October, receiving 112 responses. While 79 percent reported that their employer has increased diversity and inclusion efforts since the pandemic started, those efforts have been uneven. For example, 20 percent discussed new hiring practices, while just 16 percent implemented new hiring practices. Additionally, while 24 percent talked about new anti-racist programs, only 19 percent have actually adopted them.
And one of the big takeaways? Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said their company is not offering additional child-care resources or paid leave. The 43 percent who responded that their companies were expanding benefits for parents were more likely to be led by a female CEO.
Another survey, by the Boardlist and Qualtrics, and featured in Working Mother Magazine, revealed that even with all else being equal, men are still coming out ahead working from home. Over one-third (34 percent) of men with children at home say they’ve received a promotion while working remotely. The same holds true for only 9 percent of women. And it’s not just promotions. Twenty-six percent of men with children at home said in the survey that they’ve received a bump in pay while working remotely, while the same holds true for only 13 percent of women.
We can do better as a society, right?
There are examples of companies drawing on their own resources and innovation to help working mothers. In fact, as a working mother of three children, and somewhat perplexed over how to handle summer camp being cancelled, I worked with a team of volunteers and our human resources department to design an innovative, virtual summer camp experience for children of Synchrony employees.
Geared toward children ages four to 14, the virtual camps explored arts and crafts, cooking, STEM subjects, and more. Each camp was run by a volunteer, all of whom were high school- or college-aged children of our employees. We moved fast and used our resources to help our employees meet a sudden need.
Come fall, we thought through how we could bring this model forward and came up with Synchrony After School, key elements of which include tutoring support; pre-recorded and live sessions focused on art, life skills, music and more; and parent wellness Wednesdays, a webinar series with an expert from Columbia University focused on topics for parents that will help them in engaging and supporting one another.
I’m really proud of the way we’ve been able to employ agile thinking to continue to respond to the evolving needs being exposed by the pandemic. But even before COVID-19 reshaped our lives, Synchrony had invested in The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace and community to connect women who have been out of the workforce to start a family with job opportunities. That investment reflects company culture. In fact, Synchrony was recently named one of the top 100 best companies for working mothers, and I was encouraged to see so many on the list. With cases continuing to spike, and a vaccine still elusive as of this writing, working mothers need all the help they can get.