(Photo by RainStar/iStock by Getty Images)

From a widely publicized op-ed in The Hill to last week’s celebrity-laden ad in the New York Times, the proposed Marshall Plan for Moms has been making headlines and simultaneously highlighting some alarming statistics. The numbers reflecting the impact of the pandemic on working women and mothers are staggering: An estimated 5.4 million have lost their jobs since last February. As of September, there were three working mothers unemployed for every father who’d lost a job. The percentage of American women in the workforce is currently the lowest it has been in 32 years.

But those figures come as little surprise to any working mother who’s been weathering the pandemic while juggling the seemingly insurmountable demands of home and coronavirus working conditions.

Reshma Saujani, the plan’s architect and founder of Girls Who Code, knows all too well the challenges being faced by mothers in the American workforce. Their situation was stressful enough even before the pandemic, she said, speaking on a Zoom call from her son’s bedroom in a From Day One webinar with fellow mother and Maven Clinic founder Kate Ryder, also a signatory to the New York Times ad.

But now the demands on working mothers in American society are exponentially worse, and failure to address them will result in devastating setbacks, undoing decades of female progress in the workforce.

“I think the thing that’s so scary is how quickly we lost so many gains,” said Saujani, the mother of two children ages six and one, pointing out that labor participation among women in the U.S. has declined to levels not seen since the 1980s. “That happened in nine months," she said. "That should frighten all of us."

Saujani was speaking from a particularly well-versed place; she started Girls Who Code a decade ago to fix the “pipeline problem” that had contributed to a low percentage of women in tech jobs.

“Ten years later, almost, we have taught over 300,000 girls to code,” she said. “We have 10,000 Girls Who Code clubs across the country. When we started Girls Who Code, almost 18% of computer science graduates were women–and now, in some schools, it’s almost as high as 50%. So it’s no longer a pipeline problem.”

“The work that we’re really focused on is rooting out bias, sexual discrimination, racial discrimination, to make sure that tech companies actually hire these amazing women,” Saujani said.

Yet now, thanks to the pandemic, the challenge is retaining these women in the workforce. “If we’re ever going to solve climate, if we’re going to solve Covid, if we’re going to solve cancer, we need women sitting around the table,” Saujani said. “Women are leaving the workforce now not because we don’t want to work, but because of child care–and because our companies that we work at, oftentimes, don’t respond with the flexibility that we need.”

“And so I, out of anger and frustration and desperation, wrote an op-ed, and it resonated with millions of women who said: I feel seen. And so now we’re going to get it done. Because that’s what we do as moms, right? You know, the fabric of our society is based upon motherhood. As we build America back better, we have an opportunity to build motherhood back better. And I think we should take full advantage of that.”

The conversation on women and work: clockwise from upper right, moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Kate Ryder of Maven, and Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code (Image by From Day One)

Her proposal for a Marshall Plan for Moms, a reference to the 1948 U.S. government program that spent billions of dollars to help rebuild Europe after World War II, calls on President Biden to implement, in his first 100 days, significant protections for working mothers. But Saujani remains a realist about the blowback and the challenges–as does Ryder, whose company provides health care for women and families. “At the end of the day, your moms are going to pick their children over their jobs,” said Ryder, “and so how do you support the moms who will always make that choice, which I think almost all moms will make?”

She continued: “For moms that have left the workforce but then want to come back, how do you create returnships in a really profound and pronounced way?”

To do that, Ryder said, employers must be “super thoughtful about what flexibility means for their organization and how to really make a leadership-level and board-level imperative to maintain gender equity in the workforce.” If a company has lost a lot of women, she added, it needs strategies to bring them back.

That’s a tall order, she and Saujani agreed–particularly when women were “already facing a motherhood penalty and a fatherhood premium in the workplace,” the Girls Who Code founder said.

“I think the penalty is going to be even greater when we go back, unless we do something about this case and we’re very intentional about rooting out the deepened bias that we have towards motherhood that has also, I think, been exacerbated by this pandemic–because now you really see our roles, doing all the unpaid work.”

In her own life, Saujani said, she’s become–on any given day, at any given moment–nanny, tech support, cleaner, cook and mental-health counselor.

“As you’re thinking about a reopening plan, and you’re figuring out the cost of keeping teachers safe, I want you to calculate the cost of lost labor–factor that in,” she said. “Until you really start putting a value on our unseen, unpaid labor, nothing changes.”

“The second thing is, we need to pass policies like affordable day care and paid leave,” Saujani said. “There are some good ideas that are in Biden’s plan right now in terms of bailing out the day-care industry and making sure that low-income mothers, in particular, get a tax credit to pay for child care. But it can’t just be a one-year stopgap. We need real structural change.”

“The third thing is, look, schools have to be open five days a week, period. If we don’t open up schools five days a week, safely, then we’re going to be in the 1960s” in terms of gender equity, she said. “So we should be working on, again: What do we need to do in terms of batch testing, keeping teachers safe, social distancing in the schools?

“And lastly, what are we doing to bring women back?,” Saujani asked, picking up on Ryder’s earlier point. “The vast majority of those working in retail and health care and education are women and women of color. And a lot of those jobs are not coming back. So how do we retrain women for the jobs of tomorrow–and then for women who have left and want to come back?”

To support and retain moms on their workforces, companies need to expand their concepts of job flexibility, said Ryder. Some “leading companies” are doing a commendable job, she said, “telling people that they could keep full benefits, which are really expensive, [and] they could work part-time, so they could work on a reduced schedule.”

At many companies, Ryder said, “if you go down to 25, 30 hours a week, and you work with your managers on that, then there’s no penalty.” Employers should be “really, really clear about what those rules are,” she added. “You really have to get in at a manager level and train them for how to work with their teams and assign some kind of support on how to pick up some of that work if somebody goes part-time.” Oftentimes, she said, there are a lot a good intentions on setting these flexibility policies, but then in some cases employees are “at the whim of the manager–and how was the manager adapting to that? What tools did they have?”

Integral to solving the growing problem, Saujani said, is gathering the knowledge and data to know its true extent. There is a need, she said, “to be specific about who is suffering–what are they struggling with, how do we help mothers at our workplace? What are the things that they need?”

“I think the first way that you actually solve the problem is by being specific and by being intentional, so really getting the data. How many mothers have left? Why have they left? What are the needs that they have? You know, is it about child care? Is it about an aging parent? What would it take for them to actually come back to work?”

She continued: “This point about the motherhood penalty is going to be huge. We already know that so many women are asked, ‘Hey, are you planning on having another kid? How young are your kids? What’s your child-care situation at home?’ [Employers are] already trying to assume that, because we have kids, we’re suddenly not as interested in our careers,” Saujani said.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, “that is simply going to be exacerbated. So in the same way that we’ve been doing a ton of unconscious-bias training, and really trying to root out some of the inherent bias that we have, we’re going to have to do the same when it comes to the motherhood penalty,  because we are going to pay a bigger tax for this, post-Covid,” Saujani said.

“And if we’re not careful, we’re really quickly going to get back to where we were in the 1960s. Before we know it.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Maven Clinic. You can watch a video of the conversation From Day One webinar. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Sheila Flynn is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.