Bravery and imagination required to get Texas women back to work

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- While many Texans are feeling COVID-19 fatigue, it's the women who are really tired.

"Women are burning out because there is no time to turn off," said Monica Roberts, Dress for Success Houston's director of professional development and education. "It is work, take care of my child, if I have a child, take care of a parent, take care of myself maybe if I get to it and do it all over again the next day."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 2.3 million women have left their jobs, with female participation in the labor force plummeting to levels not seen since 1988, according to the National Women's Law Center.

NEED HELP? Find resources and organizations that support Houston women in need

The pandemic has also revealed an unequal burden of care carried by so many of these women that important gains made at work are rapidly being erased globally.

"We've been thrown back into a kind of old world moment where suddenly, women are having to do all this care work and that's seen still as women's work, when that suddenly comes literally home because your children are at home," said Dr. Elizabeth Gregory, director of the University of Houston's Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality.

Thursday night, ABC13 Houston hosted an important town hall conversation, highlighting some of the reasons behind the sudden exodus of women from the workplace, and providing a roadmap to getting these women back to their careers as soon as possible.

For many women, the decision to leave work has come down to simple economics: it's more expensive to work than to stay at home with the family.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in the U.S. earned 81 cents for every dollar the average man earned in 2020. Texas women earned below the national average, bringing in 80 cents.

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In Spring Branch, Jenny Rice Cotton serves as president of Gracewood, a residential program that serves single mothers and children in need.

As the pandemic continues, Cotton said she has seen many women struggle because the cost of living has not kept pace with women's salaries. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

"Almost 40% of our moms here were immediately unemployed because of the lack of childcare," Cotton said.

Cotton said many Gracewood residents were forced into industries with more essential workers, from warehouses to restaurants and food delivery services.

"Mothers are at the biggest disadvantage," said Carla Thompson, workforce development manager for Turner Industries Group. "Daycares are open right now from 6:30 to 5:30. You can't find daycare that you're not going to pay more than your salary can cover."

Thompson said the problems only mount if that mother is a shift worker, making substantially less than in other industries and with work outside of normal daycare hours.

"I think we have a moment in time where a lot of things are coming to light that before were just normal," said Dr. Quianta Moore, a Huffington Fellow in Child Health Police at Rice University's Baker Institute. "I think that this pandemic has really created opportunity to reimagine what life could be like for us."

For starters, many of the women featured on Thursday night's town hall panel suggested the Biden administration should research European models for education, even the U.S. Army's childcare system, to help make work possible for Texas moms.

"If we just said, 'We're going to have kids be in school at the same time that their parents are at work... just make it available from eight to six, you would be assisting a lot of the families," Gregory said.

Moore said the business sector also has a role to play in leveling the playing field when it comes to reducing the cost of childcare, urging companies to invest in their employees' families from birth to Pre-K.

"Time and time again, investment in quality childcare yielded very high return on investment," Moore said. "It's good business to actually invest in early childcare."

Finally, our panel agreed it is past time to rewrite the rules at work that have benefited men for generations.

Dr. Julie Fette, associate professor of the Rice University Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, said men are actually needed to demand a more equitable work environment, from ending the exclusion of women from a trip to the golf course to eliminating "presence-ism," the idea just being at work shows your commitment.

"Typically what companies have done when they respond to a gender problem is recruit more women," Fette said. "Then, you know create mentorship networks which are basically women mentoring women, right, to deal with any problems, but I think the third step is really where we're at now, which is really getting the men in the workplace involved in inventing new workplace codes that work for all."

Watch a recap of the event, live newscasts and in-depth reporting from ABC13 on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and AndroidTV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."



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