COVID-19 and the Mass Exodus of College-Educated Moms From the Workforce

More than 300,000 women left their jobs in September 2021—but it was actually moms with access to more flexible remote work during the pandemic who took the biggest hit. What gives?

Woman wearing a facemask at the office while grabbing her belongings after resigning to her job
Photo: Getty Images

It's no surprise that American parents are burning out during this seemingly never-ending pandemic, with moms suffering the most while struggling to balance work and child care. And it's not just their mental health that's taking a beating—moms are being forced out of the workforce in alarming numbers and reports find that their careers could be set back by decades because of COVID-19. What is surprising? New research is shining a light on the types of moms more likely to leave their jobs: College-educated women who have had the option to work remotely.

New research from the U.S Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis looked at how working mothers of school-age children were affected by the lack of child care, virtual schooling, and demands of their jobs during the pandemic and found that it was actually women with a bachelor's degree or more advanced degree—who worked at places that allowed telework—who were more likely to leave their jobs.

More than 860,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 and 309,000 women left in September 2021—both mass exits timed to the start of new school years.

"In some sense, that maybe sounds counterintuitive, because you have these women with higher levels of education who are in these flexible work situations," Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the U.S. Census Bureau who was the lead researcher on the study, said.

So why are these moms leaving the workforce if their jobs seem to be more flexible? The lack of child care exacerbated by the pandemic means that many of these college-educated women were working from home while also caring for the kids—and it just became too much. Indeed, a Brookings Institution report from August found that from May to December 2020 moms with kids age 12 and under were simultaneously working the equivalent of two full-time jobs during the pandemic: their normal job and full-time caretaking. The result? Hundreds of thousands of women leaving the workforce to focus primarily on their kids.

"[These moms] experienced large amounts of burnout because the multitasking was way too intense," Heggeness said. "Those are the mothers for whom there was a 'choice' about whether to work."

But many parents who were financially able to shift from paid to unpaid labor would not necessarily call it a "choice" they had much of a say in. And for women of color, low-income, and single moms—those who never had the option to telework—the choice between caring for their children and their careers simply doesn't exist. A Washington Post survey of 2,557 working parents during the pandemic found that these moms were losing more hours at work to care for their kids and were more likely to spend more of their income on child care. These moms are not OK.

"You see they are continuing to work, and so there's questions around how they are doing it," Heggeness said. "You see moms who do have extra resources backing off because it is so stressful. So when you're a mom who doesn't have that luxury to back off of paid labor to focus on the care of your children, what does that mean both for that individual mother, for that family? What does that mean for that neighborhood and that community? And what does that mean for us as a nation?"

Experts aren't sure how this gendered issue—where more women than men are primarily taking on both paid and unpaid labor, burning out, and leaving the workforce in droves—will impact the economy, but it's sure to wreak havoc for years to come. The pandemic and child care crisis aren't going to disappear anytime soon, so where's the help moms are begging for?

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