Under Pressure

Illustration of working mother at a computer with two children trying to get attention.Pandemic exposes gender inequities for working parents.

When daycares closed and schools moved to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, families with children at home were challenged in ways that adult-only households were not. Yet there was also a difference in how fathers and mothers fared. And working mothers may have had it worst of all.

UC San Diego sociologist Mary Blair-Loy studies gender, the economy, work and family. She has documented the conflict between “work devotion” and “family devotion” for years. In her work, including the award-winning book Competing Devotions, she has argued that this conflict is not in fact inevitable. Rather, it is a cultural construct with serious consequences for mothers.

She points to recent research showing that the care and education of children during the pandemic landed squarely back on moms not because they were more available, but due to gender bias. These tasks are “fundamentally, culturally understood to be the mother’s responsibility,” says Blair-Loy.

“The broader cultural beliefs that we take for granted about gender, work, parenting, mothering, fathering—these have been there all along,” says Blair-Loy. “The pandemic exposed them, and it exacerbated them.” But women paid the professional price for parenting long before this coronavirus surfaced, she says. While men tend to get a workplace boost for becoming parents, the opposite is true for women.

“U.S. culture sees fatherhood as raising a man’s stature and his reliability. He’s assumed to be the breadwinner and so assumed to be more ambitious and dependable at work,” she says. “Fatherhood is also seen as making men warmer and more likeable.”

On the other hand, a woman who has a child is seen as more distracted and less competent. She is assumed to be less loyal to the workplace. “There’s this suspicion that motherhood is uniquely threatening to work devotion,” says Blair-Loy.

All else being equal, including experience and education, Blair-Loy says, “men reap a financial bonus, while women take a financial penalty” for being parents.

In her new book, Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering, Blair-Loy shows that even academia harbors cultural assumptions that downgrade the accomplishments of mothers and many others. “It’s remarkable that in a professional culture with a sincere belief in meritocracy, we still see women and other marginalized and minoritized groups devalued, net of their actual productivity.”

Blair-Loy says that for those who teach in higher education, especially in science and engineering, motherhood “pollutes the identity of being a committed scientist.” Some professors have even gone so far as to hide that they’re also mothers. “They don’t lie, but they try to cover it up—they have babies in the summer or take a sabbatical rather than a parenting leave.”

One bright side of the pandemic, with its blurring of home life and work life, is that it may have helped us see the gender inequities that were there all along. “New attention to these problems means we can begin to address them,” says Blair-Loy. “It’s a good thing because now we can move forward with conversations about solutions.”