Jen Gerson: Close bars. Open schools.

We risk a lost generation of working women if we fail to make hard choices come September

On rare sunny evenings in suburban Vancouver, my family would gather on my grandparents' deck for easy dinners of cheap steak, and tomatoes dipped in vinegar and salt. My grandfather was no debater. He was a gentle man, quiet, but traditional. And on one of those summer nights under their dying plum tree, I prattled on about the things I wanted to be when I grew up. 

He looked at me and said: "Why would anyone hire you if you're going to have a baby?" 

I was outraged, and I sputtered, but I was too young and inarticulate to offer him an answer, then. 

What I wanted to scream, but couldn't: "This isn't 1952! My mother — your own daughter — worked and raised me! We have schools and daycares, structures in place to allow me to pursue a career and have kids, if I want . This was the '90s, and I can grow up to do whatever I want."

My Papa is now passed and I remember him fondly, and this is no longer the '90s. It's 2020, and most grandfathers know better than to say such things to their chatty granddaughters. 

But this might also be the year when we see a sharp break with decades of progress. Thanks to COVID and the economic fallout, my grandfather’s views may yet prevail.

Parents around the world have spent the last five months maintaining the illusion of working full time from home while caring for and schooling their children. It is not sustainable. If schools don't open by September — if there is no end to this nightmare in sight — we risk an enormous and enduring exodus of women and mothers from the workforce. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have good evidence to suggest that we can safely return children to class, as long as we can keep the rate of community spread of COVID-19 under control. Hiring more teachers, finding more space, cleaning more often, acquiring more PPE — these are achievable goals. We are also going to need to prioritize certain social interactions over others. If infection begins to spike in September, we need to close the bars long before we consider shutting down the schools again. The social consequences of failure are simply too high. 

It took women generations to claw their way to this imperfect state of opportunity and gender equity. If we fail, those gains could disappear by 2021. It’s already happening: preliminary data analyzed by Sylvia Fuller and Yue Qian — professor and associate professors of sociology at the University of British Columbia — show that women have faced the worst of the economic consequences of COVID-19 so far. 

Since the lockdown, the employment gap between mothers and fathers has widened remarkably. The difference was most marked in parents of elementary-school children. Losing daycares was hard, but what really pulled women out of the workforce was homeschooling, they argued

The disparities grew even more stark by socioeconomic status. Service-sector jobs were disproportionately affected by the pandemic lockdown. And the less educated the woman the higher the probability she was laid off, or stayed home to keep an eye on the kids. 

While focusing on this fact framing provides a compelling moral frame, it understates the scope of the problem. This is not a temporary crisis for waitresses and retail workers. What we are facing is a lost generation of working mothers. 

At the moment, professional women who have enjoyed the "luxury" of working from home while caring for their children full time are snapping. If school is cancelled come fall, or if the current state of uncertainty appears to be our "new normal", I fear that more of these women are simply going to decide to quit their jobs.  

If a woman in the service sector quits or is laid off, she will probably be able to find a similar job once the economy recovers — and a program like the CERB should be able to fill in that gap in the meantime. 

But a job that requires a degree or two, and several decades worth of experience to obtain -- that's not the sort of setback that can be papered over with a government cheque. Women who leave the workforce from professional and mid-level careers will have a harder time finding work at the same level they left. 

Many politicians have compared COVID-19 to a world war. Well, remember what happened to a generation of gainfully employed women once the boys returned from the fight. 

I've seen data from the U.S. showing that in half of households with children, it will be mothers who stay home if schools don't re-open in September (fathers would would do the same in only three per cent of households). In most families, this isn't a matter of gender expectations, but rather of simple math; the partner who earns less takes over childcare. And women still tend to earn less than their partners. 

The effects of this will be neither short-lived nor confined. Imagine a scenario where a vaccine is a year or two away; in which schools might be closed down for weeks at a time with no notice due to a local COVID-19 outbreak; in which a sniffly nose requires a 14-day quarantine at home. 

If kid stays home, mom stays home. How long can we sustain that before employers respond in kind to the disproportionate uncertainty that a working mother with competing family obligations brings to the job? How long before being a woman is once again seen as a workplace liability?

"Why would anyone hire you if you're going to have a baby?" 

It took only one serious crisis and here we are, already reverting to the gender roles that we thought we'd abandoned. 

An entire generation of working mothers raised to believe we could become astronauts and prime ministers are now can see a life as constrained as our grandmothers'. In a pinch, our ambitions are expendable. 

Lest anyone imagine this is just about moms, opening schools is also better for children. Already pediatricians around the world are warning about the mental health, psychosocial and, long-term class repercussions of school shutdowns that stretch from weeks and months to years. Already we are seeing an increase in child abuse, and children are struggling with mental health.

What data we have collected suggests that 1 in 10,000 children who contract COVID-19 will die of it —- those odds are very good, though little comfort if yours is not the 9,999th child. The mortality rate in children is one of the few areas in which it is fair to compare COVID-19 to the flu.

For those who might argue that keeping moms home is necessary for the health of the greater community, the good news is that there are early signs that we can open schools safely. Elementary schools do not appear to act as accelerators of the virus, so the risks to the  community are small, according to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

There are things we can and should do to mitigate risks. Measures like teaching children in contained social pods, spreading them out over a larger space, and using masks and social distancing where possible can help. 

Many teachers' unions are now raising concerns about lack of resources; they need more staff, more space, more PPE to do their jobs effectively. That may be so, but it's also a narrow way to look at the problem. An outbreak has already been recorded in Quebec even though hygiene measures were "top notch." 

So it's not just a matter of more masks and Plexiglas. The best way to ensure that schools remain open and safe is to keep the background rate of community transmission as low as possible. On that note, Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto's School of Public Health pointed me to this commentary at the British Medical Journal. 

To wit:
"The country has a budget of social interactions. If we spend some of them on allowing children to get back to school, we cannot afford to spend them on rock concerts, or seeing large groups of family — even if the direct risks to the individuals involved in each individual interaction are the same or less than those of the permitted activities."

What we face is a set of hard choices. How are we going to choose to spend our limited budget of social interactions? What are we going to allow and prohibit to minimize the long-term damage that this pandemic represents? To me, our priorities seem terribly clear; if the virus begins to tick up in September, schools are essential. Bars are not. I don't want my grandfather's question to hang over a generation of young mothers.

"Why would anyone hire you if you're going to have a baby?"

My answer, this time, is clear. 

"Because we don't live in 1952. Forcing women to stay home en masse, to sacrifice generations' worth of female workforce participation, is no longer something we will tolerate."

Close the bars. Open the schools. 


In other news, this piece from stay-at-home mom Laura Mitchell generated some delightfully caustic Twitter response. Far from praising public school teachers, she argues that this pandemic is making her consider homeschooling. Many were, understandably, not happy; but consider, for a moment, the broader class and social implications if even a significant minority of moms agree with her and opt out of the public school system. For this reason, I think, it’s worth a read. We welcome all angry teacher rebuttals at lineeditor@protonmail.com.

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