‘Return to Office’ Plans Spell Trouble for Working Moms

I’ll never know what it was like to be a working parent in the Before Times. My son was born in October 2020, and I returned to work—remotely—in February 2021.

My routine back then was simple: I’d drive six minutes to drop my son off at his San Francisco daycare and then return home to work at my desk in his bedroom. There was no sweating on the bus as I realized that traffic was going to make me late to pick him up. No lugging a breast pump to and from a windowless lactation suite. No getting home at 6 pm to realize I’d forgotten to defrost the chicken for dinner.

The hand-wringing over whether women can really “have it all” is decades old by this point—you may have read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 take in The Atlantic (her conclusion: they can’t), or the New York Times Magazine piece in 2003 about the rise of college-educated mothers opting out of the workforce (“I wore myself out trying to do both jobs well,” one said). But the later phases of the pandemic, especially after many schools went back to in-person learning, offered a surprising experiment for those of us usually at the center of that debate: college-educated working moms like me, nearly half of whom were able to do our jobs from home.

Without the burden of a commute, we did our jobs, took care of our kids, and sometimes even got to exercise. Being able to pull it off was dependent on having reliable childcare—a big “if”—but, for many people, remote work meant the difference between chaos and sanity. One recent study found that it saved people like me an average of 72 minutes a day.

Evidence suggests that the increase in companies enforcing return-to-office mandates may drive American mothers out of the workforce at a crucial moment. Those 72 minutes matter, perhaps now more than ever. The skyrocketing cost of housing has made it much more difficult for families to live close to corporate jobs in cities, causing commute times to balloon. (People taking public transit to work had an average commute of 50.6 minutes each way in 2019.) Jobs in industries like law and finance are “greedier” than they used to be, leaving employees with grueling schedules—and their partners to pick up the household slack. Mothers are far from the only workers affected by these changes, but the data about their experiences provides a crucial window into the impact of working from home.

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By mid-2022, the labor-force participation rate for college-educated women was 69.6%, making this group the only one whose participation had not fallen from 2019, according to data analyzed by Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. That plateau was particularly remarkable given that the group’s labor-force participation has been slipping since it peaked in 1999 at 75%, even as women have been graduating from college at a higher rate than men since 2007 and outnumber them at medical and law schools. This, says Fry, is the demographic most likely to have jobs that can be done remotely. “The pandemic left college-educated women relatively unscathed,” Fry says.

I’d argue that, for all the trauma and isolation of being a parent—or really, a human—during the pandemic, it did more than just that.

I’ve talked to women who could hide their pregnant bellies from their coworkers, who wondered if their promotions might not have happened had bosses known sooner that they’d be out for maternity leave. Women who had morning sickness and could puke in the comfort of their own bathrooms. Women who didn’t have to decline meetings that began at 4:30, worried about the complicated math of train times and daycare pickup. Working from home, in short, allowed them to hide the evidence of the competing priority that is motherhood, which of course was good for their careers.

In fact, there are now actually more college-educated women in the workforce than there are college-educated men, according to Fry—31.3 million women, a 7.5% jump from 2019, compared to 30.5 million men. Many of those women have toddlers and young children, according to work by Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist. “Working at home may have opened doors and increased options for them,” she wrote in a 2022 paper. About 78.2% of female college graduates aged 25 to 34 who had children participated in the labor force in the fall of 2021, she found, compared to 77.2% in the fall of 2018.

There was even a mini baby boom among college-educated women ages 30-34 during the pandemic, the first reversal in declining U.S. fertility rates since 2007. Researchers say the flexibility of remote work for this demographic may have contributed.

A law-firm associate in Chicago who had a baby during the pandemic told me that she got three bonuses during the pandemic because of how much she got done while working remotely, and her experience is borne out by data showing that people are productive at home.

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To be sure, women can and have worked outside the home while parenting for decades. My own parents both worked in offices full-time and managed to raise two kids, neither of whom turned out to be serial killers. And 75% of employed women who didn’t have a college degree kept reporting to their in-person jobs throughout the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean the system isn’t, well, kind of miserable. “It wasn’t sustainable, but I thought, this is what you have to do to have kids,” says Brianna, 33, a mom who, before the pandemic, left her house by 6 a.m. every morning in order to get to her job in downtown Nashville by 7 a.m. so she could leave by 3:30 to relieve her 2-year-old daughter’s caregiver.

Before the pandemic, working remotely was frowned upon at her information-services company, says Brianna, who asked that her last name not be used because she didn’t clear our conversation with her bosses. Now, she works remotely and has more time for her kids and for her job. If she’d had to go back to the office, she says, she likely would have shifted to a part-time role—not a decision her husband would have made, even though they make the same amount of money.

Though of course non-mom caregivers benefited from extra time too, working mothers are the ones whose responsibilities have grown, rather than fallen, over the decades. Compared to 2003, employed women are spending more time working and more time on childcare, according to the American Time Use Survey. Men, meanwhile, spent less time at work than in 2003, and also less time doing childcare and housework.

That dynamic speaks to what sociologist Paula England calls the “stalled gender revolution,” which she attributes in part to the fact that women take on more childcare and household duties than do men. True progress toward gender equality, England says, will only come with “substantial institutional and cultural change.”

Such as, for example, a sudden shift toward working from home.

For some workers, having gotten a taste of that shift, there’s no going back. Iris Borkovsky was a data analytics manager for Uber who didn’t have strong opinions about remote work—until she became a mother in June 2022. Uber’s decision to begin enforcing a policy that workers spend half their time at the office was one of several reasons that Borkovsky decided to quit. (In October, Uber acknowledged that remote work helped work-life balance but said that people had a “stronger sense of belonging” and higher overall satisfaction with work when they were in the office regularly.)

And that lawyer in Chicago with her three bonuses? She was told to start commuting three times a week in 2023. Now she’s talking to a recruiter to find a new job that will allow her to work remotely, even though she knows it will be a “step down” in prestige and pay.

“The pandemic gave me a taste of what my life could be like—I could get excellent reviews at work and still felt like I’m being a good mom,” said the woman, who didn’t want her name used because she is still looking for a new job. “Why are we trying to push so hard to go back to this previous reality that wasn’t working so well?”

Those two women are not alone. A recent survey conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn found that just one in ten women wants to work “mostly” on-site, compared to one in five men.

Read more: No One Wants to Go Back to the Office As Much As White Men

In the course of reporting this story, I talked to Suzanne Braun-Levine, who was the first editor of Ms. magazine from 1972 to 1988, during which time both she and her husband worked full-time and raised a son and a daughter in New York City. But despite her kids having been raised in a world in which feminist support for women in the workforce was part of the air they breathed, she was nervous that her daughter, who is eight months pregnant with her second child, would drop out of the workforce.

'Return to Office' Plans Spell Trouble for Working Moms

Her daughter, Joanna Bozkurt, is a senior vice president at a financial institution and a pandemic mom like me; she gave birth to her first baby in March of 2021. Her husband keeps long hours as a lawyer at a big firm. Bozkurt is still determined to stay in the workforce after their second child is born, but acknowledges things will be different. And perhaps harder than it was for her parents. Her dad was the founding partner of a law firm, she says, but before cellphones and laptops, he would come home and not have to worry about work. Anecdotally, she says, her parents also seemed to be less plagued by guilt than she and her husband are. They didn’t stress as much about whether they were doing the “right” things to raise their kids. “I think guilt is a very recent thing,” Braun-Levine agrees, and surveys suggest she’s right that something has changed. Today’s mothers are finding parenthood a lot harder than they’d anticipated, perhaps because of the pressure they put on themselves.

Remote work—which doesn’t just help college-educated moms in heterosexual relationships—can enable all parents to better share household and childcare responsibilities. Iris, the former Uber worker, says her husband is also a more confident parent for having been around to do more of the daily work of care and feeding. His company is fully remote except for one week a quarter, when teams get together in-person.

Of course, there are big benefits to being in an office, around other people. Companies tout increased collaboration and mentorship opportunities for younger workers as reasons for calling people back. For some working moms, the ability to leave their children at daycare and go into a place where they are something other than a mom is an essential part of staying sane.

But the idea that only in-person workers are dedicated to advancing in their careers is a false dichotomy leftover from the pre-pandemic world. People used to go into factories and then to offices because there was no other way to get work done otherwise. That’s no longer the case.

Goldin, of Harvard, plays out a troubling scenario where, in an extension of existing family time-use choices, men go into the office five days a week and women go in only three; women will do the client-facing meetings on Zoom and men will go to Europe to close deals, and women, already behind on wages, will lose out on bonuses and pay increases.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“People think it’s mutually exclusive to be really ambitious and committed to your career and also demand flexibility,” says Rachel Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org. “I just want to say out loud, ‘I don’t think they’re at odds with one another,’” she says.

Most working moms like me—most anybody, I’m sure—would love to be able to snap our fingers and be around our colleagues at work, and then snap our fingers and be home in time to pick up our kids from daycare. But this isn’t Star Trek. If companies are being truthful with themselves, they have to admit that working remotely is the closest thing to teleporting we’ve got. If they want to keep working mothers, something has to give.

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