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 a career.
This challenge increased dramatically during the pandemic, when women took a step back from their careers because there were fewer childcare options. It persists in a post-pandemic world where women’s labor force participation rate is lagging behind men’s and one percentage point below its pre-pandemic level.
Some see parental leave benefits as the ultimate solution. But every mom knows that the challenge doesn’t suddenly expire when maternity leave expires. The other consideration is access to affordable childcare options, but even that doesn’t complete the scheduling puzzle. For many mothers, for example, daycare hours may conflict with their working hours. This is where flexible employment arrangements can be transformative. If a mother is given working autonomy in terms of time and place, it improves her chances of participating in the labor market and accepting employment opportunities that would otherwise have been inaccessible.
Indeed, several decades of economic research show that women tend to self-choose jobs with greater flexibility, largely because they have to plan their working hours around childcare activities. The expansion of intermittent, part-time, and casual jobs also contributed to the increase in the number of women entering the workforce throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
More recently, the pandemic has upended the way we think about work. And while we’ve seen progress in specific industries implementing permanent work-from-home arrangements, it may have ultimately been a short-lived revolution. Many workers have now been called back to the office, and no real progress has been made in transitioning out of the strict 9-to-5 workday.
It’s no surprise that women are turning back to self-employment – often referred to as “self-employment” or “gig work” – precisely because flexibility is its defining characteristic. A mom who operates 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 entrepreneurs. Although still more common among men, two different studies using official tax data show that participation has increased much more among women since 2001, even at a time when overall female employment has remained relatively stable. In one of these studies, the authors suggested that the long-term growth of the self-employed labor force “cannot be solely attributed to people seeking extra income or to the rise of a few online platforms, but can represent a structural change in the labor market, especially for women.”
Women also make up a larger share of the self-employed in industries other than transport, such as on e-commerce platforms or childcare and tutoring platforms, or among professional freelancers in professions such as translators, nutritionists and proofreaders.
Data from a pre-pandemic survey shows that flexibility was indeed the top motivation for women to join the freelance workforce. After the pandemic, flexibility remains a key issue. A Brookings Institution survey from early 2002 found that among unemployed respondents looking for work, the top labor market concern was flexibility in working hours to accommodate people’s care obligations. dependent.
Of course, there are gaps in flexible working arrangements that can hinder participation. Workers do not have access to benefits granted to official employees, which has led to political battles in all states and at the federal level. However, these tensions arise because our system prioritizes the immobility of benefits – for example, health care linked to an employer – in a world where the preferences of workers, especially women, have changed and accord more value to choice and portability.
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 a specific employer. Calls for extending maternity leave benefits for female employees fail to recognize that many working mothers choose to quit their jobs precisely because the arrangement is rigid and tends to be less accommodating to women with child care.
As a thank you to working mothers this Mother’s Day, we should salute structural changes in labor markets that increase their employment options, encourage the growth of the self-employed sector and redefine benefits so they are more transferable for a worker.
(Liya Palagashvili is a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and co-author of the study “Women as Independent Workers in the Gig Economy.”)