According to Manouchehr “Mitch” Mokhtari, professor of family economics at the University of Maryland, the phenomenon of a large number of women leaving work is not new. Mokhtari notes that women going back to school to obtain degrees or retirement are some of the main reasons why women leave the labor force. (Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash)

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

In March 2020, Chantal Potter was seven months pregnant with her first child. At the time, she was a project manager leading a team focussing on a Department of Defense (DOD) contract at the Defense Health Agency (DHA).

When she gave birth to her daughter Sydney that May, she had a decision to make. Working for the government required Potter’s daily presence on site, but as a new mother faced with the uncertainty of a global pandemic she questioned whether  the workplace was where she really ought to be. 

Potter and her husband discussed their options, and ultimately, she decided to quit her job. 

The decision gave Potter the opportunity to reinvigorate a production company she started as a junior at Howard University. She was able to focus on her feature-length directorial debut of “Balloon Man,” a documentary about her father, the first African-American hot air balloon master pilot. 

“It was definitely scary, especially with all of the unknowns of the pandemic, like how a lot of people were losing their jobs,” said Potter. “But, we stayed in prayer, and that was a big thing for us, just knowing that God will work things out. He did, and we were able to sustain.” 

Between March and April of 2020, nearly 3.5 million mothers living with school-age children left the workforce, whether they shifted into paid or unpaid time off, lost their jobs or vacated the labor market altogether, according to a study from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

While the number of fathers in the workforce declined by 14.7 percent at the start of the pandemic, the share of mothers declined by 21.2 percent. 

Mothers have also taken longer to recover from the departure, according to the study. In January 2021, active workforce status for mothers was 6.4 percent lower than in 2020, but for fathers, it was 5.9 percent lower. 

Although the gap began to close between mothers and fathers, mothers continue to trail behind their counterparts in returning to the labor market. 

Manouchehr ‘Mitch’ Mokhtari, a professor of family economics at the University of Maryland, said the phenomenon of women leaving the labor force is not new. The exodus actually started in 2000, and back then, the primary causes were women going back to school to obtain degrees or retirement. 

The onslaught of COVID-19, along with the shutdown of the economy, exacerbated  the exodus,  according to Mokhtari. 

Transportation services dwindled and daycare centers and schools closed their doors. Some workplaces also had to reduce the amount of accommodations and services they could offer their employees. 

For families, childcare is a prerequisite for participating in the labor market, and without it, people cannot always continue working, especially if they are required to work in-person. 

As the government provided relief to families suffering from the financial impact of COVID-19, families also had more access to capital, so rather than consuming services, families shifted to primarily consuming goods, according to Mokhtari. 

This forces someone in the household to step in to provide daily services, like preparing meals and caring for children. 

Mokhtari also noted that  the median wage for women is  only 83.4 percent of the median wage for men, so there is less incentive for them to work in the labor market. 

“Overall, we are not going to do as well as we could as a country if women are not enabled and empowered to go to the labor market and get proper wages and proper environments to work in,” said Mokhtari.

Laurel, Md. resident Kiara Jackson also left a government position during the pandemic, and she was pregnant at the time. Her agency allowed employees to take administrative leave and virtual professional development courses if they had high-risk conditions. 

In November 2020, pregnancy became classified as one of those conditions, so Jackson maintained her job and stayed at home. But, as her maternity leave was coming to an end after having her child, Jackson knew she could not return to the office five days a week. 

The thought terrified her, especially because she had a newborn baby at home. 

Jackson landed a new contracting job in 2021 that is completely virtual. She said she’s thrilled with the new position. 

In September, her daughter had to be taken to the emergency room two times because she was struggling to breathe, and if Jackson didn’t work remotely, she’s not sure if she would have been able to stay with her in the hospital while maintaining her professional duties. 

Unlike Jackson and Potter, Jazmin Muhammad worked in education before COVID-19 arose. She worked in English departments for various schools in Montgomery County, Md. in 2020 and into 2021. 

But that November, after three months of in-person learning, Muhammad quit. 

She had a 5 year-old son, Nasser, and a 6-month-old, Haaniyah, and working in the school system became unsustainable for her family. 

When she wasn’t at work, Muhammad was preparing for the next school day. It was challenging to get dinner on the table, have quality time with her family, pump milk for her daughter and get her to childcare. 

Muhammad also felt herself slipping into postpartum depression. 

But, leaving the school system, allowed Jackson to recreate and rebrand her business, The Honey Mama Company, which provides meals to women, particularly those of color, who are trying to get pregnant, expecting or in their postpartum period. 

She’s also started working at an educational nonprofit that allows her to have a hybrid schedule. 

“Our society really wants mothers to mother in a way that we don’t have jobs but then also work as if we don’t have children,” said Muhammad. “If our society is truly trying to transform and evolve into a place that is equitable and is about inclusivity that has to be on the table.”

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