(Photo by Martine Doucet/iStock by Getty Images)

As the pandemic drags on with little government support in sight for families with child-care needs, Marianne Cooper, a senior research scholar with Stanford University’s VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, has faced this nagging thought: “I don’t think America loves its children, and I’m starting to think it hates its parents.”

Cooper, who has long studied women in the U.S. workplace, has now focused on how COVID-19 has impacted working mothers and their families. She spoke in conversation with Bryan Walsh, the future correspondent for Axios, during From Day One’s conference last week what can be done to help working parents during the crisis. Throughout, Cooper delivered a strong argument that the U.S. is in an unprecedented emergency, that women and children bear the brunt of it, and that government and businesses must step up more than they have so far.

Women in this country, particularly women working low-paying, blue-collar or service jobs, have long struggled to balance work with child care. The U.S. is unique among developed countries in its lack of paid family leave and sick leave, a lack of universal health care and few federal safety nets to support families. “What the pandemic has done is laid bare all those challenges,” Cooper said, “And what were challenges are now a full-blown crisis.”

She clearly laid out the stakes: This October, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce than in February, falling to levels the country hasn’t seen since the late 1980s. Economically, women aren’t recovering as quickly as men as they face what Cooper called a “double whammy”: job loss and financial uncertainty alongside closure of schools and daycares.

In the conference on parenting, Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, at right, was interviewed by Axios correspondent Bryan Walsh (Image by From Day One)

Women and families of color have been hit the hardest. Cooper shared survey data from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which found that cleaners, nannies and other workers had a jobless rate of nearly 40%. “Among people who were low-income workers to begin with, they're concentrated in jobs that we would call low-quality jobs with low pay, nonexistent benefits, and often dangerous working conditions,” she added. “Those families have always lived very close to the edge and are at a high likelihood of experiencing economic instability.”

Even for working parents with more resources, the child-care situation is far more dire than terms like “work-life balance” can begin to encompass, Cooper said. “I think we're facing what many are just starting to describe as a humanitarian disaster.”

Government has fallen short of providing enough relief to meet the long-term implications of the disaster, Cooper said. The U.S. needs a stronger safety net, particularly to support people who were already living in economic insecurity before the pandemic. She also pointed out many schools and day-care facilities don’t have enough resources to open with new safety protocols, and most school districts don’t have testing capacity for their teachers. “When the government can’t step in or won’t step in in an emergency like this, pre-existing inequalities just grow,” she noted.

In the absence of new government supports, Cooper and Walsh discussed ways that corporate employers could further step up for both the short term and long term. Right now, Cooper said, companies need to frame the situation as an emergency comparable to a war–and set productivity expectations, deadlines and priorities accordingly. Companies also need to push against the expectation that employees should always be available. “There should be collective practices of working that create that space and divide,” she said. One example is a no-email policy for evenings.

Looking further down the line, companies need to think of this as a long-term investment in their employees over a multi-year emergency. “It’s thinking: can we reduce hours, have days off, expand vacation times and be clear about our expectations around productivity?” Cooper said.

Cooper shared some discouraging findings of a wide-ranging survey she led, the Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, which included 40,000 workers. Only half of their employers had communicated their expectations about productivity to their employees in the wake of COVID-19, the respondents said. Some women interviewed in depth for the survey reported their managers hadn’t even asked them basic questions about how they were coping. “That to me shows much more can be done on this front,” she said.

Leadership in a pandemic poses many challenges, but a lot of it boils down to responsiveness, open communication, flexibility and resource sharing. “Sometimes it’s just enough to acknowledge it … to reach out and offer to talk it out,” Cooper said. “Sometimes it’s the little things that can be the difference for people.”

As companies look to managing well through the long term, Cooper mentioned a few important components. The first is not only to set priorities for leadership and management to clearly communicate with employees, but ensure managers are following through. In Women in the Workplace survey, Cooper said, “Something like 70% of employers asked managers to check in with employees to make sure their workload was manageable, but only 40-something percent of employees said that was happening.”

Leaders should also be educated and aware of maternal bias in the workforce, like the idea that a working mom is falling short if she can’t be available to the company all the time. Maternal bias is even more likely to come up now, as many female employees balance child care and other demands from home. Performance reviews should either be paused altogether or take all these challenges in mind, as “the time is ripe” for such biases, Cooper said. She also suggested that companies track parental status alongside gender and race demographics when they assess their workforces for diversity and inclusion.

Cooper hopes that in this pivotal historic moment, the U.S. takes a hard look at how it treats families and acknowledges where we could do better. “Once people realize, ‘It’s not my problem to solve, because I can’t individually solve it,’ they begin to put their head up and look around,” she said. “And that's where companies can start pushing on the policy front, which is leading with their own internal policies on family leave, for example, but really, talking and lobbying at the public and federal level to change things for everyone.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.