If we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s this: Our society rests on the shoulders of women, particularly mothers.

Carolyn Courtney drops off her 4-year-old twin sons, Cormac, far left, and Gabriel McCarthy, at Bouncing Bubbles Child Care in Skowhegan. Maine’s lack of affordable child care was already going to get some attention in this year’s legislative session; the pandemic makes the need for action even more explicit. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The pandemic has shown that they take on not only an outsized share of housework and child care – and whatever other emergencies fate has in mind – but also dominate the ranks in some of the most critical industries.

After a year of COVID, however, that responsibility is weighing heavily on many women. They may be too busy to ask, but they need support.

Even though Maine’s economy is recovering, and the rate of vaccinations and the recently passed relief bill bring hope that the future is bright, women are still being held back. If we’re not careful, it could be permanent.

Not only have women led the response to COVID – they make up about three-quarters of all workers in hospitals and K-12 schools – they also have suffered the bulk of job losses in Maine this past year: 57 percent, as reported by Staff Writer Peter McGuire.

Why? For one, they represent most of the workforce in the sectors hit hardest by COVID: hospitality, entertainment, doctor’s offices, retail.


And even if they weren’t laid off in the last year, many women were forced to cut hours or leave the workforce altogether after day cares and schools closed, leaving no place for their kids to go during the day. As McGuire reports, the workforce participation rate of women has fallen to 55 percent, the lowest in 30 years.

Many of these women won’t be able to go back to work until schools return to full-time in-person instruction, or until hotels and restaurants recover enough to bring full staffs back.

The longer they remain separated from the workforce, the less likely it is they’ll be able to return. In any case, the lost time will keep them from advancing in their chosen career. It’s a loss – both for them personally, and for the Maine’s economy, which desperately needs workers.

The pandemic has underlined this dynamic. But it didn’t invent it. The lack of affordable child care has, for years, kept women from participating fully in the workforce. When someone needs to stay home with the kids, it is more often than not the mother, whose earnings and career are put on hold.

That contributes to the pay gap between men and women, and leads to more women leaving the workforce – when push comes to shove with child care, it’s the higher-earning spouse who keeps their job.

That was already happening – the pandemic just made it more widespread. Now it threatens to reverse decades of gains for women in the workforce.

But it has also, with any luck, made it impossible to ignore. Maine’s lack of affordable child care was already going to get some attention in this year’s legislative session; the pandemic makes the need for action even more explicit. Expanded child care options and reopened schools will give moms some breathing room.

The women working in low-wage jobs must also be given opportunities to advance. Child care is part of that, as are raising wages, continuing education and encouraging policies, both in government and the private sector, that value the extra work women have at home.

Our society asks a lot of women. Just how much has never been more clear. It’s time we give them our support, and a fairer shot at the life they want.

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