Child Care

Why is COVID-19 Destroying the Careers of Women?


Published in
6 min readSep 22, 2020


Authors: Profs. Nicole Elias and Maria D’Agostino

The COVID-19 pandemic is “disproportionately destroying the careers of American mothers” (Grose 2020).


Because of child care.

Photo by Segun Osunyomi on Unsplash

COVID-19 exposes the dependency of the U.S. economic system on weak and costly child care. In fact, many jurisdictions kept schools open at the onset of COVID-19 as a form of child care, despite the growing risks (Axelson, 2020; Hutt, 2020; Stack et al., 2020). This pandemic presents an opportunity to move beyond the current model of child care where women bear most of this burden. COVID-19 data show that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately affected by the closing of schools as they carry out most of the duties involving child care (Hutt, 2020) and that women do not remain in the workforce when affordable childcare is unavailable (Gale, 2020).

Gender inequities in child care are especially troubling, because they perpetuate additional disparities along health, income, and race lines (Johnson-Staub, 2017; Sachs, 2000; Robins; 1990). Access to quality child care and early education programs are vital not only to the development of children but also their families’ financial health, especially when women are heads of households (Johnson-Staub, 2017; King et al., 2019; Sachs, 2000). Surprisingly, the U.S. adopted universal child care in the past, but not now.

The economic and social conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic are not much different from those during World War II (WWII). Namely, in both COVID-19 and World War II, many women were deemed to be essential workers during times of war or crisis and child care coverage became problematic (Herbst, 2017; Stevenson, 2015; Tuttle, 1995). During WWII, child care concerns were highlighted as a result of increased women participation in the labor force as men were drafted to fight overseas (Herbst, 2017). These concerns were addressed by the U.S. Lanham Act of 1940 (Fousekis, 2011; Herbst, 2017; Stevenson, 2015; Tuttle, 1995). COVID-19 and the Lanham Act during World War II illustrated that social, political, and economic life suffer without successful universal child care policies. As a focusing event, COVID-19, has the potential to propel the establishment of a universal child care system that is affordable, high-quality, federally-funded with local involvement and discretion, and flexible for primary caregivers seeking care support.

As many school districts across the U.S. began the 2020–2021 academic year in a hybrid or fully online format, the lingering question remains: who will take care of the children while caregivers work. With no long-term federally or locally subsidized child care programs, plans for care remain even more volatile with questions surrounding how the 2020–2021 academic year will function beyond the fall months.

The pandemic accentuates the challenges women face amidst this uncertainty, particularly the dual burden of being the primary caregiver and breadwinner for women, especially women of color (PowHerNY, 2020). Women represent fifty-five percent of the 20.5 million jobs lost since April 2020 (Lander, 2020). The percentage of women in the workforce has fallen below 50% (webinar); whereas pre-COVID-19 women made up more than 50% of the workforce.

The paradox of this crisis is that women are either losing their jobs, having to choose between work or caregivng, or are out on the frontlines as essential workers. Remedies like New York City’s enrichment centers only get us so far in providing a temporary solution to child care for essential workers. Mayor de Blasio’s Learning Bridges program, an attempt to build a new child care system from scratch, for 100,000 children from working families, is struggling to meet the needs of families as schools are reopening.

Beyond major municipalities, the U.S. Congress has passed three pieces of legislation to address supporting families and child care during COVID-19, nationally. These include: 1.) the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) This economic relief package allocates over $2 trillion in economic assistance for American workers, families, and small businesses, particularly child care centers. 2.). The Child Care Is Essential Act S.3874 provides $50 billion in grant money to child care providers to assist in safely reopening, this funding could be utilized for sanitation and cleaning, rent and utility costs, or health and safety training; 3.) The Child Care for Economic Recovery Act H.R.7327, focuses on providing access to safe and affordable child care to families through tax provisions. However, we should think about child care as a crisis, not just during a crisis.

One avenue to achieve a more permanent and equitable solution is the Biden plan. Biden’s plan would cover children under the age of 5, and no family earning below 1.5 times the median income in their state will have to pay more than 7% of their income for quality care (Biden 2020). A typical family will pay no more than $45 per week and for the most-hard pressed working families, early childcare costs would be fully covered, saving these families about $200 per week (Biden 2020). In addition, this economic focus, flexibility in choosing care and care that meets the needs of nontraditional work schedules and location should remain a focus to ensure the varied needs of caregivers are met. Within larger policy proposals, tools and practices to institutionalize changes should likewise be adopted.

The gendered dimensions of care should not be lost. We suggest adopting creative approaches to capture the experience of caretakers.

For example, integrating gender budgeting as a tool to not only allocate resources when developing child care plans but also move the responsibility of child care from an individual issue to one that occupies a position of public priority for the benefit of broader society (Elson and Sharp 2010; Hill 2002; Rubin and Bartle 2005; Sharp 2003).

Also, the utility of collecting data in this critical moment should not be overlooked. It is critical to understand the pressing needs and challenges of caretakers during COVID-19 in order to craft pragmatic and equitable child care policy. The opportunity to achieve greater gender equity should be realized by treating COVID-19 as a catalyst for the U.S. to institutionalize a universal child care system.


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