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This Women’s History Month, let’s change the narrative to support working moms

As we come to the close of Women’s History Month, we must acknowledge the pivotal elongated moment in women’s history we are currently living through: the unbelievable challenge working moms are collectively facing to keep our children and our country afloat.

When the threat of the pandemic became frighteningly clear, it became no longer safe for my older parents to continue providing my sister with the free childcare she and her husband were relying on.  Like countless others, she was forced to try and find an impossible balance between her full-time, high-pressure job and the needs of a needy albeit adorable, nine-month-old. To this day, she still has to schedule client-facing calls around nap time and work well into the night after bedtime.

And she is among the many deemed lucky because she was able to keep her job.

As of January 2021, 2.3 mllion women have left the labor force and 5.4 million have lost their jobs during the pandemic. In December 2020 alone, women accounted for all job losses in the U.S. The women’s employment devastation caused by the pandemic-induced recession has been and continues to be widely reported.

As communicators, we know that context is important when describing inequities, and after reviewing a swath of the recent coverage, I’m sharing some tips for how social justice communicators, advocates and reporters can effectively communicate about this crisis and create a narrative that more accurately describes the world of working moms.


Be explicit and use the right term for the problem you are describing.

Losing their jobs, opting out, being forced out. These are all terms being used to describe the current crisis hitting working women. Many reporters are using these terms somewhat interchangeably, but the terms all have distinct meanings and root causes that are important to be aware of as we work toward solutions.

The term “job loss” refers to women losing their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. This ranges from the industries hardest-hit by the pandemic initially food service, hospitality, care work industries that are undervalued and underpaid with roles predominantly filled by women of color and women whose companies took an unforeseen financial hit that resulted in layoffs.

As we know, many women who have lost their jobs are not actively looking for work either because they know the jobs aren’t there or because working is no longer feasible for them. With no child care options and young children doing remote school from home, for many women it is no longer possible to work to the extent that their employers require without flexibility or support, at work or at home. Reporters often communicate this as “opting out” or a decision to “leave” the workforce. And yes, for the most privileged among us, who perhaps have the support of a partner’s income or free child care provided by family members, it arguably could be considered a choice. But we have to ask ourselves, when the status quo for employers, no matter how big or small, is to treat motherhood as an inconvenience, and gendered dynamics in the home still result in mothers being three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for the majority of housework and childcare, is it really a choice?


When communicating about this issue make sure to:

  • Be clear about which issue you are focusing on job loss or being forced out of the labor force. Be sure to use the appropriate phrase and name who or what is forcing women from the workforce. We have to understand what needs to be fixed in order to address the underlying issues.

  • Name privilege when a choice was possible and provide context for when it was not. In those cases, use “forced out” instead of “opted out” of the workforce.


Name the systems that exacerbated this crisis. Center race and gender.

The pandemic did not create inflexible, sexist, racist work environments that discriminate against women and mothers. These systems have existed since women entered the workforce, along with the gender norms that undergird these beliefs and subsequently unsupportive policies. Women’s work is historically undervalued, figuratively but also literally. Last week marked Women's Equal Pay Day, which reminds us that women on average make 82 cents to the man’s dollar.

And racial inequity in the gender pay gap is undeniably stark. Black women make 63 cents, Native American women make 60 cents, and Latinas make 55 cents to the man’s dollar. In addition to still making significantly less, women of color are segregated into low-wage work which is newly considered to be “essential” and yet still extremely underpaid, with little to no flexibility and a dearth of supportive policies.


When communicating about this issue make sure to:

  • Include historical context of gender norms that both reinforce household labor as being “women’s work” and undervalues any role deemed to be appropriate for women.

  • Name racial inequity and systemic racism at play that keeps women of color from earning significantly less than their white counterparts and segregated into low-wage, undervalued roles. If we don’t name the systems causing the problem, our audiences will fill in the blanks with their own explanations based on existing biases, which are often related to personal efforts or individual choices.


Offer solutions that don't reinforce the problem.

As we all look toward recovery, the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic have strikingly revealed that so much of what we deemed normal is fundamentally broken. There is no shortage of policy solutions being brought forth to fix our broken systems: universal child care, paid leave for all, raising wages and standards for care workers and essential workers – and we should be fiercely advocating for policies like these that support working women. But we should also be fighting to change the narrative.


The deficit-based approach to this conversation has made women and women of color victims of a system that never existed to support them. In reality, women are the heroes. Whether a choice or not, women are stepping up to care for children and aging relatives when the U.S. government will not. Women remain on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers to put food on the table, not just for their own families but many other families. They keep the places we all spend the majority of our time now our homes clean, well-stocked, and functional. The question is not how we have failed women, but how women are saving us all despite being failed at every turn. And more importantly, how are we going to make it up to them?


When communicating about this issue make sure to:

  • Name specific policies that will help resolve pieces of this problem. Explain why and how they will benefit working women and our communities as a whole.

  • Shift your framing to an asset-framed model that centers women as champions and the systems as the failure.


As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s clear we have a long way to go to shift our policies and our culture to treat working moms as the invaluable members of society they are. As we continue to communicate about this issue together, let’s change the narrative by using clear messaging, structurally informed solutions and asset-based framing. If we truly want to work towards solutions to support working moms, we need to create a narrative that imagines what a supportive system would look like and work towards building it.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at 15:14 pm and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.