Commentary by Liya Palagashvili
This Mother’s Day was my first as a new mom. Now, I’ve joined the choir of women who have long voiced the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career.
This challenge grew considerably during the pandemic, when women took steps back from their careers because there were fewer child care options. It lingers in a post-pandemic world where the female labor force participation rate lags behind its male counterpart and is a full percentage point lower than its pre-pandemic level.
Some consider parental leave benefits the ultimate solution. But every mom knows that the challenge does not suddenly expire when maternity leave expires. The other consideration is access to affordable child care options, but even this does not complete the scheduling puzzle. For many moms, for example, day care hours may be incompatible with their work hours. This is where flexible job arrangements can be transformative. If a mom is given work autonomy in scheduling and location, this improves her chances of participating in the labor force and taking on job opportunities that otherwise may have been unattainable.
Indeed, several decades of economics research shows that women tend to self-select into jobs with greater flexibility, in large part because they need to schedule working hours around child care activities. The expansion of intermittent, part-time and casual jobs also contributed to the growth of women entering the labor force throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
More recently, the pandemic disrupted the way we think about work. And while we have seen some progress in specific industries implementing permanent work-from-home arrangements, ultimately it may have been a short-lived revolution. Many workers now have been called back into the office, and no real advancements were made on transitioning out of the strict 9-to-5 work day.
It’s no surprise that women have again been turning to independent work — often referred to as “self-employment” or “gig economy” jobs — precisely because flexibility is its staple feature. A mom operating a store on Etsy can work from home and has more freedom to choose what time and how often to work.
This is consistent with recent data showing an influx of women as independent contractors. While it is still more common among men, two different studies using official tax data show that participation has grown significantly more among women since 2001 — even at a time when overall female employment remained relatively flat. In one of those studies, the authors suggested that the long-run growth of the independent workforce “cannot solely be attributed to individuals seeking supplemental income or to the rise of a few online platforms, but may represent a structural shift in the labor market, particularly for women.”
Women also represent a greater share of independent workers in nontransportation industries, such as on e-commerce platforms or in child care and tutoring platforms, or among professional freelancers in occupations such as translators, nutritionists and proofreaders.
Pre-pandemic survey evidence shows that flexibility was indeed the primary motivator for women joining the independent workforce. Post-pandemic, flexibility remains a key issue. An early 2002 Brookings Institution survey found that among unemployed respondents searching for work, the No. 1 job market concern was flexibility in work schedules to accommodate dependent care obligations.
Of course, there are shortcomings in flexible work arrangements that can hinder participation. Workers don’t have access to benefits afforded to official employees, which has led to policy battles across states and on the federal level. However, these tensions are arising because our system prioritizes the immobility of benefits — for example, health care tied to one employer — in a world where worker preferences, especially among women, have shifted and placed more value on choice and portability.
To better meet the needs of working moms, we should have flexible benefits for a flexible workforce. Maternity leave could be tied to an individual worker — like an IRA or an HSA account — rather than to one particular employer. Calls to extend maternity leave benefits for female employees neglect to acknowledge that many working moms opt out of the job precisely because the arrangement is inflexible and tends to be less accommodating for women with child care obligations.
As we look forward to next Mother’s Day, we should welcome structural changes in labor markets that increase their employment options, encourage growth of the independent sector and redesign benefits to be more portable for a worker.
Palagashvili is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and co-author of the study “Women as Independent Workers in the Gig Economy.”