A little predictability could go a long way for working moms

Register now

As families still shelter in their homes to protect themselves from Covid-19, a lot of moms are, as usual, doing more than their fair share of child care while (impossibly) trying to teach out-of-school kids and work remotely. And moms like me who are doing this are, of course, among the lucky ones — we haven’t lost our incomes. But there’s something fairly easy and cost-free that employers can do to attract, support and retain working mothers, during and after this pandemic: Offer us predictable hours and work commitments.

Unpredictability is one of the biggest challenges working moms face — in all kinds of professions. It helps explain why highly educated mothers on the whole don’t earn more and go further in their careers. Between 1984 and 2014, the hourly pay of people who work long hours increased dramatically, according to research by the Russell Sage Foundation. Top-paying jobs in fields like finance, consulting and law often require long and unpredictable hours, so it’s hard for two people in the same family to hold such positions. If both parents have to jump on last-minute flights, who will be home for the kids? That sort of responsibility still mostly falls to mothers, which helps explain why many highly educated moms don’t hold top positions.

The Russell Sage study also found that the long hours that now come with top-paying jobs helps explain the so-called motherhood wage penalty and fatherhood wage premium — the reason moms make less money than childless women and dads make more money than childless men. According to a 2018 study of Census data by the National Women’s Law Center, the motherhood penalty costs the average mom $16,000 a year in lost wages.

Clearly many things need to change, including employer expectations of the number of hours an individual worker can reasonably put in. However, a big part of the solution is predictability. If moms could schedule their hours and line up child care in advance, they’d be better able to juggle parenthood and higher-paying jobs. Of course, some positions have a higher inherent level of uncertainty: A partner in a law firm would be expected to be available to talk to a top client at any time. But an easy, inexpensive thing employers can do to make managing parenthood and jobs much, much more manageable — for all parents — would be to schedule meetings and trips with as much notice as possible.

Take my family. My husband is an emergency medicine physician and I’m a professor. My husband often works nights and weekends and is required to put in his requests for particular shifts off several weeks in advance. This means that it’s no problem for me to arrange for him to be home for our young daughter so that I can be at in-person meetings or travel for research and conferences — if I know about my commitments well in advance. The problems arise when my meetings are scheduled without a few weeks’ notice and he is already scheduled to work at the same time. Even parents who are working from home while quarantining need advance notice so that one parent can be present to keep an eye on the kids while the other is in a meeting. This week, for example, I was sent a Doodle poll after 9 p.m. with nine possible times for an upcoming meeting, including one slot at 9 a.m. the next morning. It’s not reasonable for most parents to be expected to secure child care on such short notice.

On the other end of the economic ladder, low-wage workers struggle with the very same issues of predictability. Two-thirds of workers in the largest food service and retail firms in the U.S. receive their shift schedules with less than two weeks’ notice, according to a 2019 study by the Shift Project. And women of color are more likely than people of any other group to have unpredictable schedules. The results are devastating for their families. The study found that low-wage workers with unpredictable hours are more than twice as likely as people with the same income to experience hunger and unstable housing situations. Parents who work on call or have last-minute changes to their schedules do not always have child care, or they leave a child with a sibling who is under 10 years old for 15 days per year compared to nine days per year for parents with more predictable schedules. And the children of parents with unstable schedules have more behavioral problems and experience more sadness and anger. The research suggests that these gut-wrenching problems could be ameliorated simply by announcing shift schedules with more notice.

A bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Rosa DeLauro in 2019 would require employers in the food service, retail and cleaning occupations to announce shifts with two weeks’ notice. It would also require employers to consider requests for schedule changes and not retaliate against workers for making such requests. But no employer should wait for a law like this to be passed to institute such humane practices.

Amidst a global pandemic and economic collapse, working moms may not be able to expect big raises or other expensive perks. But there’s a simple practice employers can institute now that would help moms in all types of jobs enormously: They can schedule shifts, meetings and trips with plenty of advance notice, so parents can arrange child care accordingly. And less-stressed moms would clearly be positioned to not just be better parents, but also better employees.

Bloomberg News