A real Mother’s Day present? Flexible jobs and flexible benefits
This Mother’s Day is my first as a new mom. Now I join the chorus of women who have long voiced the challenges of balancing motherhood and work. This challenge increased significantly during the pandemic as women stepped back from their careers due to fewer childcare options. It lingers in a post-pandemic world where the female labor force participation rate lags behind that of men and is a full percentage point below pre-pandemic levels.
Some consider parental allowance to be the ultimate solution. But every mom knows that the challenge doesn’t suddenly end when maternity leave ends. The other consideration is access to affordable childcare options, but even that doesn’t complete the planning puzzle. For many mothers, for example, childcare times are not compatible with their working hours. This is where flexible working arrangements can be transformative. Allowing a mother labor autonomy over when and where she works improves her chances of participating in the labor force and pursuing employment opportunities that would otherwise have been unattainable.
Indeed, several decades of economics research show that women tend to be more flexible about job choices themselves, in large part because they need to plan their work hours around childcare activities. The expansion of temporary, part-time and casual jobs also helped more women enter the labor market in the 1980s and 1990s.
More recently, the pandemic has changed the way we think about work. And while we’ve seen some progress in adopting permanent work-from-home policies in certain industries, ultimately it may have been a short-lived revolution. Many workers have now been called back into the office and no real progress has been made in the transition from the strict 9-to-5 workday.
It’s no surprise that women are turning back to independent work – often referred to as “self-employment” or “gig economy” jobs – precisely because flexibility is their key feature. A mom running a shop on Etsy can work from home and has more freedom to choose when and how often to work.
This is consistent with recent data showing an influx of women as independent contractors. While it’s still more prevalent among men, two separate studies using official tax data show that women’s labor force participation rates have risen much faster since 2001 – even at a time when overall female employment was relatively flat. In one of these studies, the authors suggested that the long-term growth in self-employment “is not only due to individuals seeking additional income or the rise of a few online platforms, but may represent a structural change in the labor market, especially for women.”
Women also make up a larger proportion of self-employed people in sectors other than transport, such as on e-commerce platforms or childcare and tutoring platforms, or among professional freelancers in occupations such as translators, nutritionists and proofreaders.
Pre-pandemic survey results show that flexibility was indeed the main motivation for women to enter self-employment. Even after the pandemic, flexibility remains a key issue. A Brookings Institution survey conducted in early 2002 found that the top concern of unemployed jobseekers was flexibility in working hours to accommodate care responsibilities.
Of course, there are shortcomings in flexible working arrangements that can hinder participation. Workers do not have access to benefits provided to civil servants, which has led to political disputes at the state and federal levels. But these tensions arise because our system prioritizes the immobility of benefits – such as employer-tied health care – in a world where worker preferences, particularly among women, have shifted toward more emphasis on choice and portability will.
To better meet the needs of working mothers, we should have flexible benefits for a flexible workforce. Maternity leave could be tied to an individual worker – like an IRA or HSA account – rather than to a specific employer. Calls for an extension of maternity leave for female employees forget that many working mothers drop out of the job precisely because the regulation is inflexible and tends to be less accommodating to women with childcare responsibilities.
As a show of appreciation for working mothers this Mother’s Day, we should welcome structural changes in labor markets that expand their employment opportunities, encourage growth in the independent sector and reshape benefits to be more portable for workers.
Liya Palagashvili is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and co-author of the study, Women as Independent Workers in the Gig Economy. ©2022 Tribune Content Agency.