Women Want to Work from Home
Fifteen years ago, a nationally representative sample of mothers with children under age 18 were asked to identify their “ideal” work situation: full-time, part-time, no employment, or working for pay from home. At the time, almost one out of every three mothers identified “working for pay from home” as ideal. The problem was that only 1 percent of moms actually had that work situation. In fact, working for pay from home was largely unheard of at that time.
Fast forward 15 years, and the fallout from a global pandemic has opened up what many never thought possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents like it. Recent findings from the Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institution survey of 2,500 American adults found that more than half (53 percent) of mothers say Covid-19 has made them more likely to prefer to work from home either most (34 percent) or half (19 percent) of the time.
This finding may be surprising to some. Evidence suggests that moms who worked from home during the pandemic shouldered more responsibility for housework, homeschooling, and child care compared to dads. Some descriptions evoked images of trapped, burdened mothers desperate to escape home and get back into a quiet workplace.
But the data rolling in on how Covid has affected women’s work preferences suggests something different. Many women found the benefits of working from home appealing. When FlexJobs surveyed 2,100 people between March and April who were still working remotely due to the pandemic, 60 percent of women identified better work-life balance and more control and flexibility over the work schedule as significant benefits from working at home. More than half (57 percent) said working from home meant they had more time to take care of themselves, cook healthier, and exercise.
In addition to these benefits, the recent IFS/Wheatley Institution survey identified another profound benefit. Increased work flexibility gave mothers more options in arranging care for their children. For decades, polls have found that mothers of young children tend to orient their work preferences to prioritize how to care for their young children. The IFS/Wheatley survey found similar results. For example, we found that only 35 percent of mothers with children under the age of 5 wanted to work full-time. Instead, their top preference was part-time work (41 percent), with another 25 percent wanting to not work at all. When it comes to what kind of care they want for their children, only 12 percent of mothers with children under age 5 see full-time center-based care as ideal; the majority desire arrangements that allow them to care for their own children at home.
Some have lamented this as a problematic gender norm, fearing that Covid-19’s effect on women’s desire to work from home will only deepen an inequitable dynamic, undoing decades of advancement in gender equality. What this ignores is that the flexibility created by pandemic responses opened up a possibility that flies directly in the face of persistent fears of further entrenched gender inequities around caregiving. After all, it wasn’t just mothers who found working from home desirable. Covid-19 resulted in a dramatic shift in fathers’ preferences as well, with an equal percentage of fathers (53 percent) saying they would prefer to work from home either most (31 percent), or half (22 percent) of the time. Among college-educated fathers, the percentage is even higher, at 65 percent.
Rather than entrenching inequality, the pandemic presents the possibility of an entirely new work-family world—one in which both mother and father share child care while they both work flexible schedules from home. Parents got a taste of it, and they want more. In fact, “flexible work + shared child care” was the top choice for the best child care arrangement for parents in the IFS/Wheatley survey. Among mothers who work full-time, more than 40 percent identified this as the best arrangement. And though many families with a stay-at-home parent are doing what they think is best, some of them desire to be working. But like most other parents, they don’t want to send their kids to day care when they do so. They want to work flexible hours and share child care with their spouse.
This desire for flexible work and shared child care is shared by all parents of children under age 5, regardless of their marital status and educational levels. Unmarried parents and parents without college degrees were even more fond of this arrangement than their married or college-educated peers, per our survey. Of unmarried parents of children under age 5, 43 percent said this is the best childcare arrangement for them, and 31 percent of parents without a college degree say the same. The corresponding share is 26 percent for married parents and 28 percent for college-educated parents.
The problem is that more parents of young children desire the flexible work plus shared child care arrangement (30 percent) than actually have it (18 percent). The pandemic response gave them a taste of what might be possible, but there is more work needed to make this ideal a consistent reality for more parents. Though policies such as federally-funded child care are often touted as the key to increasing women’s opportunities, not only does more work flexibility appear to be to what most women (and men) want, but it might actually increase gender equality around caregiving.
One positive outcome of the global pandemic may be a better work-family world for us to work toward. If we look at what parents say they want, that world will include greater access to work and child care situations that are responsive to different needs and desires—a world that allows both mothers and fathers to prioritize what matters most to them.
Jenet Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution and Institute for Family Studies, and an associate professor in Religious Education and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.