Ilsa, a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was trained as a lawyer, but a decade ago when her children were born, she decided to start a small business because the schedule was more flexible, making it easier to take care of her children. Ten years later, the pandemic forced her to close down her small business for good. Meanwhile, she found herself going through a divorce. She suddenly felt like she lost everything: “If I had gone out to be a lawyer again and hadn’t chosen to have a flexible job so I could raise my kids, I would probably still have that job now. I would have a steady income most likely and I would have health insurance, benefits. But now I’ve lost everything, and I just feel like I’m falling through the cracks.”

Like Ilsa, many working mothers in the U.S. have been pushed into a more flexible but also more precarious and lower-paying work arrangement because our “typical” workplace fails to provide the accommodations that mothers need to balance their work and family responsibilities. The professional workplace is built around “ideal workers” who are always available, assuming they have no responsibility for housework or childcare. The United States is the only industrialized country with no paid leave for new parents. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address flexible work schedules, leaving workers at the mercy of their employers. Two out of five wage and salary workers had no access to flexible work hours in 2017-2018.

The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of the “ideal worker.” Just before the pandemic hit, women made up more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce; there are approximately 15 million breadwinner mothers whose income accounts for at least 40 percent of their household income. For professional workers, the workplace norms and practices have not been catching up with the reality. Working mothers tend to be channeled into low-wage, part-time jobs with few benefits, low job security, and limited opportunities for advancement, confounding their income instability.

Raising the job quality and labor standards of the contemporary workplace will be essential for retaining women and combating gender inequality in the workplace. Policy measures such as increasing the federal minimum wage and providing universal paid and family medical leave are needed to ensure dignity, safety, and security for all workers. Other measures should be taken to support workers’ collective bargaining so that workers can have a say in achieving worker-friendly policies.