Is the staggering cost of childcare driving women out of the workforce?

Although recent reports by the U.S. Labor Department show that women now hold more than half of the payroll positions in the country, the high cost of childcare remains a deterrent for many working mothers. Gender pay disparity and the motherhood gap are two mainstays in conversation among professionals because of the societal perception of women in the workplace.

It is for this reason that programs like Ellevate Network, a community for professional women dedicated to fostering equality in the workplace, exist.

“The biased, gendered narrative on childcare has been persistent for many years: we hear about women making career sacrifices for caregiving duties more than men do,” Ellevate Network CEO and mother of three Kristy Wallace said, explaining the disproportionate pressure on mothers to bear the brunt of childcare duties.

The stats

Eighty-one percent of women in a 2019 survey by The Mom Project and parenting app Winnie said childcare factored into their decision to work, with 53% claiming high childcare costs kept them from working.

In 2016, about 2 million parents made career sacrifices based on childcare, the National Survey of Children’s Health reported.

Childcare costs have increased by 49% from 1993-2018, per a January 2020 Freddie Mac report.

Mothers were 40% more likely than fathers to report childcare issues had a negative impact on their career in a 2018 Center for American Progress study.

The average cost of childcare per month varies by state but is approximately 9-36% of a family’s total income and 27-91% of single parent’s income.

Addressing gender roles

Finding consistent, reliable childcare at an affordable price is a struggle for many families. When the pressure to juggle it all becomes too much in a two-parent household, moms tend to be the parent who makes a career change or leave the workforce altogether. She’s already been out of the game during leave and she’s statistically likely to be the lower-earning parent.

“We should also acknowledge the unique challenges for single parents, 80% of which are women; and the stigma that exists around employees who have to negotiate flexible benefits (such as more work from home options or reduced hours), or more broadly, the stigma towards motherhood in general where assumptions about your family planning timeline happen during your first interview,” Wallace says.

Changing the status quo of the woman being the automatic choice to leave or change careers based on the high cost of childcare starts with changing the gender norms of parenting roles.

“Policies such as the recent Paid Family Leave legislation certainly address caregiving as a shared responsibility,” Wallace says. “To make this an acceptable reality we need more leaders across gender identities leading by example — taking paternity leave, sharing the childcare responsibility, and normalizing the role of caregivers in the workplace.”

Long term impacts of high child care costs for women

While it is possible to explain a gap in your resume to potential employers, Wallace says that this is still a factor to be considered when examining how expensive childcare impacts women in the workforce long term. She cites the “pervasive bias around career breaks” as putting women at a disadvantage when re-entering the workforce.

She also calls caregivers who return to the workforce “a huge untapped opportunity for employers” noting that although hiring processes typically marginalize caregivers with employment gaps, these parents actually possess the requisite skills to get the job done.

What can be done?

While Wallace acknowledges that increased access to pre-k for all programs are beneficial to address the high cost of childcare, the system is not without its flaws in its current state, leaving many families to travel long distances to access public schools with the program, causing logistical issues for parents.

“Compared to many developed nations, we’re far behind on equal pay, paid leave, and childcare,” she says. “Early childhood educational programs are immensely important in supporting working parents and giving them the ability not to give up on their careers.”

Companies across the U.S. do recognize the problems parents face with childcare, and employers like Google and Apple offer childcare benefits such as backup care to their employees.

“Some companies may not have the space or the resources to provide these benefits at the scale of Google or Apple, however, there are still ways to explore these options such as subsidizing childcare costs or utilizing third party providers (an example could be UrbanSitter),” Wallace says.

Looking forward

Despite the trend of mothers leaving the workforce because affordable childcare is not within reach, Wallace’s message to parents in the workplace is a powerful one.

“If you are a working parent, a coworker, a manager, or a business owner, you have significant power in helping create a culture in your workplace (and beyond) that removes the biases of motherhood,” she says. “The progress we’ve been lacking and the systemic blame put on parents hurts our businesses, our economy, and our society as a whole. Policies and procedures are only impactful when introduced in tandem with a shift in how we view parenthood in today’s economy. Keep having conversations and challenging the status quo.”