Stalled Careers: New Research on the Intensive Margin in the Pandemic

Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on the careers of working parents, especially for working mothers, because of the pandemic childcare crisis. The number of women in the labor force has decreased during the pandemic, called the “shecession,” because they carried up to 70 percent of the burden of childcare and home schooling in their families when schools and childcare closed, and women in large numbers either dropped out or were fired from their jobs. Claire Cain Miller, in an article published by the New York Times, notes that new research shows that mothers, and some fathers who did not lose their jobs, “worked fewer hours, declined assignments or decided not to take a promotion or pursue a new job” due to the childcare crisis. Economists call this reduction in hours or stepping back from career opportunities the “intensive margin”—how much people work as opposed to how many are in the labor force. This trend has both short-term and long-term consequences “because American employers tend to penalize people who work at less than full capacity.”

Miller reports on a survey conducted during the 2020–21 school year by Morning Consult for the New York Times of 468 mothers who worked for pay. The survey found that

  • One-third said they had worked fewer hours during the pandemic because of childcare issues.
  • One-fifth had moved to part-time work.
  • 28 percent declined new responsibilities at work
  • 23 percent did not apply for new jobs
  • 16 percent did not pursue a promotion.

Miller notes that the Census Bureau has been surveying families weekly during the pandemic. The latest report, based on data collected between June 23 and July 5, 2021, found that

  • Respondents living with children who were unable to attend school or day care for pandemic-related reasons said that an adult in the household had cut paid work hours in the past week as a result.
  • One-quarter said an adult had taken unpaid leave to care for children.
  • One-fifth used paid leave, like vacation or sick days, to do so.
  • Single mothers not living with another working-age adult have experienced the biggest decrease in hours worked.

The intensive margin—working part time or working less than full capacity—can have career repercussions and a long-term impact on earnings and promotions. Miller cites economist Misty L. Heggeness, a principle economist at the Census Bureau as saying, “We are going to see gender equality slip if we don’t pay attention to the intensive margin.” Once again, it appears that the pandemic is not the only problem impacting women’s careers. The root problem is still gender inequality.


Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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