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Without Support Systems, Families Caught in COVID Quandary

Assoc. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd Sees Lasting Harm to Women’s Careers

Beth Humberd teaches a class at the Manning School of Business Photo by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd says without traditional support systems like school and child care, working parents are being forced to figure out on their own how - and if - they can return to work during the pandemic.

07/29/2020
By Ed Brennen

You want your kids back in school this fall because getting them to learn online last spring while you tried to act professional in work Zoom meetings was a lost cause. You worry that the new COVID-19 protocols for schools will make it difficult for your kids to get the consistent support they need. But now that you’re expected to be back in the office, you need your kids to get on that school bus every morning. Otherwise, you may find yourself out of a job.

That’s the dilemma facing countless working parents as K-12 school districts across the country grapple with the decision of whether to reopen classrooms in the fall, continue with remote learning or go half and half with a hybrid model. 

For Beth Humberd, an associate professor of management in the Manning School of Business, the back-to-school quandary is just the latest pandemic-related issue that overlaps with her research on how parenting affects career success for women and men.

“I’ve always been attuned to how all of these systems — family, employment, the economy, education, public health, etc. — are interconnected,” Humberd says. “So the good news is that other people are now seeing the need for these to be connected. But when a crisis like this tears it all apart, I think that’s why we’re having such a hard time navigating through a lot of this.”

Humberd, an associate in the university’s Center for Women and Work, has been a go-to media source of late in discussing the pandemic’s lopsided impact on women’s careers. She also just co-authored an article with Assoc. Prof. of Strategic Management Scott Latham on what the pandemic means for the future of the office.

“So much is being left to the families to figure out right now,” says Humberd, who counts her own young family among them. “I’m glad to be able to speak to it, but I wish it was better news. I don’t have a super optimistic view right now of what this period will do for equality and professional women’s careers when we look back at the data in 10 years.”
“We have these plans for all these other aspects of the economy reopening and just no certainty or reliability around support systems for working parents.” -Assoc. Prof. of Management Beth Humberd

Humberd recently shared her thoughts on how the crisis is impacting working parents, the unintended consequences of not reopening schools and day care centers, and what the post-pandemic workplace might look like.

Q. You say that during times of crisis, we tend to fall back on inequitable patterns. Why is that the case, and what does that mean for working women?

A. As much as there has been progress around professional women and dual-working families over the past two to three decades, there were still patterns of inequity where more of the “second shift” of household work and child care fell traditionally to moms versus dads. And I’m referring to aggregate patterns here; there are obviously households where that’s not the case. The reason we were able to move from that more traditional family structure to dual-working families is because we had things like child care, after-school programs and camps — even family members who could help. When the pandemic started, those support systems were gone in an instant. As a result, there is a lot of new research coming out showing that women are taking on more of the homeschooling. It’s more likely to be the woman who is going to pare back her hours at work or, unfortunately, leave her job.

Q. Do you see those support systems for working families returning?

A. There’s such uncertainty around if, how and when any reliable supports for working parents are coming back, and that’s been nagging me. You could argue that the situation is even more stark right now than maybe it was four months ago because we’re starting to see the economy and jobs up and running with literally no sense of any reliable support structures for working parents. Day cares are supposedly “reopened,” but many have not been able to reopen or are struggling to stay afloat because the government guidelines are so restrictive. We have these plans for all these other aspects of the economy reopening and just no certainty or reliability around support systems for working parents. I understand that the health-related guidelines are done with the best public health interests in mind, but I think we’re starting to lose a little bit of sight as to how to balance public health with actually allowing these support structures to be used and be useful. I’m not disregarding the public health concern, but I am trying to call attention to possible unintended consequences to all of these other systems — like education, families and employment — that are impacted by the public health approach. We have to find the right balance.

Q. What are those unintended consequences?

A. I’m concerned that in the absence of these social systems that support working families, people are going to do a mishmash of their own thing: putting their kids in unregulated child care settings or having potentially high-risk grandparents watch the kids out of necessity. These social structures that were available to the masses to make this work are being left to individuals to figure out on their own, which I worry in the longer term will be more of a detriment. If we close schools but we have day care programs combining children from six elementary schools because that’s the only way for working families to make ends meet, is that really what we want?

Q. Many companies have been able to let employees work from home during the pandemic. Could this signal a larger change in how companies treat working parents?

A. Early on, this was actually a good thing for those of us who were calling for companies to be more understanding of who employees are both inside and outside of the workplace. The severity of what this did early on forced many organizations to be more flexible. Now we run this risk, though, of people seeing headlines that day cares have reopened and thinking families have it all figured out. Many employees aren’t able to make that happen. As an organization or manager, it’s important to continue checking in and understanding employees’ unique situations. The informal culture right now is super important for the workers and organization to survive, but I don’t think that the long-term solution for working families more broadly can be, “Well, just find an organization with a really supportive informal culture.”

Q. When the pandemic finally ends, what will be the lasting effects in the workplace?

A. I’m not one of those people who think, “Oh, the great work from home experiment — we’ll never go back to the office again.” I don’t think that would be a good thing. But one silver lining to this could be: Will we finally break free from these outdated norms of 9-to-5 work, five days a week, in a cubicle, where those people who are seen as the best performers are the ones in the office the most? I can see one of three things happening: I can see organizations going more remote than they ever thought they would; I can see companies slowly easing back to their same normal as before just because we’re creatures of habit; and I’m a little concerned we could see a third group where some companies and managers will swing the other way and want to bring us all back tighter and with more surveillance, because for such a long period here they haven’t had as much control over their departments and organizations. I hope we land somewhere between one and two, where we’re a little more amenable to remote work in areas that maybe we wouldn’t have thought possible, but still have in-person interactions to build trust and collaboration.