The pandemic’s impact on working moms
Dr. Marianne Cooper
Sociologist at the Stanford VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab, affiliate at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, and lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s NYT best-seller, Lean In

With kids at home, careers to maintain, and households to run, working mothers are running on empty. Something’s gotta give. Unfortunately, it’s often their job. Today, womens’ participation in the U.S. labor force is the lowest it's been in decades. They’re pulling back on their careers – or dropping out of the workforce entirely – because they simply can’t do it all. The situation is especially dire for women in senior leadership positions and Black women. Marianne Cooper, Ph.D., is a sociologist at Stanford University where she researches issues related to gender, women’s leadership, diversity and inclusion, financial insecurity, and economic inequality. She was the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In, and is an author of the Women in the Workplace reports by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org. Marianne joins us to share major findings from this year’s eye-opening report, which reveals just how stark the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequalities and insecurities women have faced in the workplace for years. She also discusses what we must do to keep women in the workforce – enabling them, their families, their employers, and the economy to thrive in the process.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • The tension (and burnout) working moms feel between being the “ideal worker” and the “good mother”
  • Why women suffer the “mom penalty” and worry they’ll be stigmatized at work (so they hide child care responsibilities from co-workers and managers)
  • Why one in four women are considering “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce due to Covid-19
  • How the increase in remote work has created greater bias against working mothers
  • Why we must show up for Black women – and what employers can do to better support them
  • What business, society, and the economy risks losing if we don’t act with urgency and empathy to support working families
  • Actions employers can take to keep women in the workforce, including better family care benefits, rethinking performance reviews, and greater flexibility


For more information, visit https://www.mariannecooper.com/


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Talking to kids about politics and the election

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and in 2020, working moms, in particular, are struggling. They have kids at home, careers to maintain, and households to run, and they're pulling back on their careers or dropping out of the workforce entirely. Marianne Cooper says working moms in corporate America are at a critical crossroads. Marianne was the lead researcher for a book I'm sure you've heard of, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She was just an author for the LeanIn.Org and McKinsey Women in the Workplace report on the status of women in corporate America.

She's also a sociologist at the VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University. Marianne joins us to explain why the pandemic's impact on working women is an unprecedented disaster. Not just for women, but for families, their employers, and the economy. Have a listen. Marianne, thank you so much for being here today.

Dr. Marianne Cooper: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Emily: You were the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg's influential book Lean In, which was published, I can't believe it's seven years ago now. Most of us probably remember when this came out. I know, I certainly do. It had a profound impact on corporate America and really shaping the conversation about women at work. As you know, lots changed in the past seven years, and many women have actually pushed back on this lean in philosophy and this idea that women can have it all and have even advocated for women to lean unapologetically out. Do you still feel that women should lean in and can they truly have it all?

Dr. Cooper: It's interesting that the book has come to be seen as suggesting that women can have it all because there's actually a chapter in the book called The Myth of Doing it All. The book never advanced the premise that women can have it all. To me, the book is about some of the challenges that women experience on the job. In the past seven years, I think we've seen a greater discussion in our society about so many of those issues, from sexual harassment to pay disparity. The conversation, fortunately, has continued and I think gotten even wider and louder.

Emily: Fast forward to now, the past seven, eight months have been something none of us ever would have expected. You've now co-authored the Women in Workplace report with McKinsey and LeanIn.Org and surveyed more than 300 companies and more than 40,000 professionals from entry-level roles to the C-suite. You uncovered some findings about how the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on women and their careers, and I could personally relate to so many of these things. Can you talk through some of these headlines?

Dr. Cooper: Yes. One of the headlines is something we've never seen before actually, is that one in four women are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce altogether. By downshifting, we mean going from full-time to part-time work, or moving into a less demanding role, because of the challenges they're experiencing during the pandemic, from caregiving to burnout, things like that. The issue is even bigger for working mothers, not surprisingly, but one in three mothers are considering downshifting or leaving the workforce altogether. This is a really concerning finding and it's mirroring what we're saying in larger employment data as well.

Emily: I read your article in the Atlantic, and there was one line that you had in there that really hit me at my core. You said that working mothers are at an unprecedented risk of experiencing a pandemic-size motherhood penalty. Again, that took my breath away. Can you talk a bit about how COVID-19 is affecting the progress that women have made in the workplace?

Dr. Cooper: Maybe first we should start with what the motherhood penalty is. The motherhood penalty is the discrimination that mothers experience on the job. If we look at the cultural backdrop behind why mothers experienced discrimination on the job, it's because we have a very strong cultural belief in what we may call the good mother. The good mother is someone who's solely focused on her children, prioritizes her children overpaid work. As a result, is unreliable or distracted on the job.

Motherhood triggers these biases that actually activates them. In studies, we'll find that people evaluating mothers who are employees will see them as less competent, less productive, less committed than fathers, or other employees. It's really this cultural belief about motherhood that ends up in forms of discrimination on the job, like being passed over in hiring or promotion decisions or in pay penalties.

Anything that signals motherhood can trigger these biases. If you think about the pandemic and literally the structure of family life in the pandemic, where mothers are blocking off calendars to take time to log their kids into Zoom or holding kids during Zoom calls, all of those things, signal motherhood, and that can invite these biases to unfold. As I was looking through the data from the report and thinking about the motherhood penalty, it took my breath away, to think about how the literal conditions of the pandemic are setting the stage for biases against mothers to get unleashed on a scale that we haven't really seen before.

Emily: How do you women help to square this conflict between being the ideal worker and the good mother? Is there really no space to be both?

Dr. Cooper: Not culturally. Let's unpack the ideal worker for a second. We have the cultural belief and the ideal mother, but we also have one in the ideal worker. The ideal worker is someone who is always available to work. Who can work long hours and [unintelligible 00:06:21] to that is that apparently there's someone at home who can deal with all the family stuff so that the ideal worker can focus, in a single-minded way, on their job. Infact, you can see the ideal worker norm reflected in practises like responding to emails at all hours or when more of us are in the office, staying late at the office. Those kinds of things.

Those behaviors get rewarded. People who work like that often get promoted. For working mothers, what they're really feeling, that pinch they feel when they're sneaking out to take care of the kid or are blocking out time in that calender and not saying what it's about is related to this cultural ideological clash between the ideal worker and the good mother. For women, it's not really up to women to square, in a sense that I'm hopeful that they'll start to understand what they're experiencing because I think there is power in that.

Companies having real conversations about maternal bias. It existed before the pandemic, but because of the conditions of the pandemic it's something that becoming a really urgent issue to address inside companies about, "Let's be on the look out for these kinds of biases. How are they going to show up? Where are we going to see them in performance reviews?"

For individual mothers, I think it's important to make sure that they're keeping track of their contributions because one of the things that can happen is that due to these biases, people can make these assumptions and not really focus on what women are delivering in the office, how they're delivering for their teams. If you keep a list of your contributions, and communicate with your manager regularly about them, that helps to offset these assumptions that women are working mothers, are less committed to their jobs.

Emily: That's a great tip. I'm sure we do a lot everyday that we don't think of as these accomplishments and things that we're doing to contribute to the organization and the people we work with. It's good to keep track of that.

Dr. Cooper: Just to add, that the reason why it's always important but it's more important now for those of us who are working from home, that creates what we would call conditions of ambiguity. Whereas when we're all in the office and you can see what people are doing and you might bump into someone in the hall and talk to them about these projects, so it's top of mind for your manager what you're doing. When people are working remotely it's literally harder to see what people are doing.

In general, all kinds of biases get amplified under these conditions of ambiguity. It's like our brain fills in the gaps and in that process, we rely on the stereotypes more often than we might have otherwise. That's why it's important to address these assumptions with facts and keeping track of all these things and making sure you're voicing that over to your manager helps offset these dynamics.

Emily: Even before the pandemic, burnout is real for everyone, but working mothers, in particular. We feel like we're being pulled in so many different directions. At the end of the day, a lot of us just feel like we're failing at everything. Now your research really did confirm that burnout is a genuine crisis for women. What is causing this burnout? What's weighing most heavily right now?

Dr. Cooper: I think working women are burned up because they're being asked to do something that's impossible to do. You cannot work full-time and take care of young children full-time month over month, it's not possible. I have become just really focused on thinking about why are we not saying it like it is. What is preventing us from talking about the fact that parents are being tasked with parenting a generation of children through an emergency? That is no small thing. Actually, the stakes are very high that parents are able to do a good job and get children to the other side of this as unscathed as possible.

I think what it really is about, just attest to this cultural validation we have of the ideal worker. Literally, the world has fallen apart, schools and daycares are closed. This is not the fault of working mothers. They didn't create the pandemic and they certainly can't manage it on their own, but really, the response is like if you can't work 40 hours a week, that's your problem to solve. Individual women are trying to solve it in all kinds of ways, but they're working around the clock, which is leading to the burnout.

I don't think that's sustainable for individual women, for companies, or for our society. I just keep thinking about it like the system is totally rigged against women in the sense that they're tasked with doing a disproportionate amount of this care work, and they're economic providers for their family, but we're not giving them the real support that they need to get through this.

Women are going to take the fall, but I also keep thinking about how-- They're not just going to fall by themselves, they're going to take their families and their country with them. The burnout that women are experiencing is that we don't have the systems in place that are necessary to get families through what is really an emergency.

Emily: What can companies do and what can people within those companies do to advocate to get more support from their organizations, because, frankly, the government isn't stepping in? What can organizations do to really help support their working parents better?

Dr. Cooper: I think it's a really hard time for companies and organizations to a lot of economic pressure. Leaders are managing their companies through a crisis. There's just a lot that's on managers' plates, so to speak. I think we need to really think through how to make work sustainable in this emergency. Part of that is being really ruthless with priorities.

We did interviews in the report as well. One thing that kept coming up was that people will say, we need to reprioritize, but they would go into meetings and then come out and they're still the same number of projects on people's list, if not more. It's actually thinking through, okay, what does productivity look like? What projects are mission-critical? What are realistic timelines that map on to the moment that we're living through? Where can we cut back?

What practices do we need to have in place to prevent people from burning out? Another one we've heard a lot about was the feeling of always having to be on. When you go to work physically and then come home and there's that physical distance thing, that results in a psychological distancing, as well. When your desk is in your bedroom and you don't have that physical separation, there's this greater sense of always needing to be on. Another thing companies can think through is what we might call collective practices of flexible work. How, as a team or a division, can we think through creating that boundary between home and work so people don't feel that need to be always on?

It can range and there are a variety of things. Don't send emails during these times of the day. Those things help people create those boundaries. Then there's the whole policy level for companies that have the resources, thinking through paid family leave policies, time away from work policies, reduced working hours, those things, and being as flexible as possible. It sounds trite, but we just need to be the best people we can be.

The best parents we can be, the best managers we can be, the best leaders we can be. That requires having a great deal of empathy and generosity and really meeting people where they are in this moment. It's a collective trauma. If we start from that point of view, I think that really changes the lengths to which we need to go to make sure as many of our employees get through this as possible.

Emily: What about performance reviews? Should those be paused right now?

Dr. Cooper: I think so. I think if you're not addressing maternal bias in your performance reviews and haven't taken steps to prevent it, they absolutely should not be happening. One thing that was really eliminating/concerning, which is like everything I do, I feel like. One thing that was illuminating and concerning in the report was how few companies had either paused their performance reviews or had changed their criteria and the performance review to adjust for the challenges created by the pandemic. It was like less than 40% of companies had done to do those things.

What that signals to me is that while we are living through one of the biggest moments of disruption in history, many companies are moving forward like business as usual. That's not going to end well, particularly for working mothers, but for everybody. Anyone who's doing caregiving work can experience these kinds of biases, but also, everyone is feeling pressure, half of employees are feeling stress, 30% of employees are feeling burned out. We need to start approaching things, our people processes in a fundamentally different way that align with really what people are going through and how difficult this period of time is.

Emily: Where do employers even start with some of these recommendations?

Dr. Cooper: Well, that's a great question. One is, I think, in anything, it's about diagnosing what's wrong. Surveys, focus groups, those kinds of things, to really solicit truthful feedback from people about how things are going for them, and what things would matter the most. That requires leaders to be vulnerable themselves. That's what signals to people that it's okay to say what they really think. A lot of people, women, in particular, are keeping the challenges they're experiencing under wraps. Women were twice as likely as fathers to be worried that their performance will be judged negatively because of caregiving responsibilities and they were much less likely to want to share their work-family challenges.

Emily: Absolutely. We did some research and we found the same thing that both mothers and fathers are hiding their childcare responsibilities because they don't want to get dinged, they don't want to be looked at differently. Your report also found that Black women, in particular, are having a really tough time. What can and should employers be doing to better support these women?

Dr. Cooper: One of the concerning findings, too, is that managers, we're not reaching out to Black women in the wake of racial violence that's occurred. Black women are much more likely to feel like they can't bring their true selves to work. They also are much more likely to say that they can't share their views on racial inequality at work. This feeling of not being able to speak your mind, to speak your truth, people not reaching out to you when these horrible incidents happen that disproportionately impact the Black community, you're not really seen, and certainly, don't feel supported.

I think that's one place that companies are also struggling to come up with, how do we create these dialogues, which are certainly about uncomfortable and difficult conversations? A place to start is by checking in with people to see how they're doing. Not just with the pandemic, which is also disproportionately impacting communities of color, but with the continued racial violence that has been occurring in our country forever. Really, as we saw last spring and summer, an uptick and protests related to it, these are really difficult and challenging times.

When we look back on it, I'll leave it for the historians, but the number of social issues and crises unfolding simultaneously in our country and around the world is really hard, and Black women are at the center of so many of those. We need to be rethinking how we show up for Black women in the workplace, and I'm hopeful that this moment will be a watershed moment and thinking through how to do things differently.

Emily: Clearly, women need more support than they're getting. As you said, there's no way that we can actually do it all. How can we better advocate not only for ourselves but the other working mothers, within our organizations and elsewhere? How can we advocate for what we really need from our employers?

Dr. Cooper: Women do hold powerful and influential roles inside companies. I think, not all women, but because a lot of women's lives more closely mirror that of the average employee, using your voice and your power, and your influence, when you have decision-making power is really important. Asking, like, "What are we doing about performance reviews this year? How is our performance review process taking into account maternal biases that can come up? How are we addressing the reality that people can't for year over year, work 40 plus hours a week, and care for really young children?"

It's just not possible. How are we going to address all these things? Parents make up 30% of our workforce. We can't just not figure out how to create processes that enable them to keep working and get through all this, our economy can't take it. I think when women occupy positions of power, they can use their voice to advocate for others, and I think women can be a tremendous amount of support for each other, just sharing the burdens and acknowledging it. I think a lot of women that we spoke with, just want people to acknowledge how hard it is. I interviewed several women whose managers had not asked them about how their work-family stuff was going.

Emily: Wow, that's unbelievable.

Dr. Cooper: It is, it's unbelievable.

Emily: The care infrastructure has been broken for a long time now, and if there's one thing that this pandemic has brought to light, it's that we need to start doing something about it. Hopefully, as people start to be more honest about the challenges that they're dealing with, and organizations actually start to listen to them, we can create positive change when we look into the future.

Dr. Cooper: I would encourage people too and organizations to think about our connectedness, and how when millions of individual women are struggling, it's not just those individual women, it means it's not just an individual problem, it means it's a social problem and social problems require social solutions. It could be a really interesting turning point and to your point, the pandemic has eliminated things and such just laid bare is the phrase that keeps coming to mind, laid bare so many issues we're having before but in such an exacerbated way.

That's how we rebuild things, is by totally understanding what's broken and I think we are there. I'm optimistic that we will build back better, so to speak, because it's very clear how interconnected our economy is, with the care needs that families have and with people's overall well being.

Emily: Marianne, I truly appreciate you being here today. I just want to thank you for all of the work that you've done and all of the research that you've been doing because it's so so important to, as you said, women in the workplace and our economy. We're truly thankful to have you here today.

Dr. Cooper: Thank you so much. It was great to be here.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork.