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Parenting and working in a pandemic

Joyce Chen seeks balance and equity as a mom, professor, Asian-American and a woman

Last fall, when school began in the new kind of way, at home, all or part of the week, with assignments and Zoom meetings and questions, Joyce Chen found herself in a predicament like many others did.

With three children at home, a 7-year-old, 10-year-old, and 12-year-old, someone always needed her for something, help with an assignment, help finding a pencil or getting on Zoom. They wanted someone to explain. They wanted someone to listen.

As an associate professor of development economics at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), Chen had to put her own research on hold while teaching a new class and converting another one to online. She needed uninterrupted hours, at least a few at a time, to delve into her research, and she didn’t have that.

Her husband made lunch, but the rest of the time, his work consumed him. He was launching and tracking progress on a program of sterilizing hospital face masks so they could be reused.

One afternoon while teaching a development economics class from her home, Joyce’s youngest child, Campbell, who is 7, came into the room. “I’m hungry,” he said. “I need a snack.”

Like a lot of mothers, she has a hard time sending children away when they ask for help. But she was in class, in the middle of a lecture about global poverty and inequality.

Ask your dad, she told him.

He’s working.

What do you think I’m doing? she asked.

“Daddy’s job is more important,” he said.

How, Chen wondered, had her son gotten the message that her work was less important? Sure, her job offered more flexibility to be available when her kids needed help – but less important? Chen felt the urge to cry. Instead, she returned to the class she was teaching, but the moment stuck with her.

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In October, Chen was interviewed on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered for a story about the impact of the pandemic on accomplished women. The pandemic has forced a lot of caretakers, particularly women, into the overwhelming juggle of working while helping their children, whose classes shifted online or whose daycares have limited capacity. It’s no wonder so many women have dropped out of the workforce entirely.

Just as Chen and many others were trying to get accustomed to a new frenzied routine last fall, women were leaving the U.S. workforce at a rate four times higher than men. In October, the percentage of American women working was the lowest since 1988. Women accounted for all job losses in the United States in December – more than 140,000 jobs.

Some women were laid off or left retail or other service positions. Others stepped away from high-paying salaries, putting their families’ needs first and trying on the new and sometimes awkward role of homeschooling parent.

“In couples, women often have to take up more caregiving responsibilities because they have the lower income in the household or they have the more flexible job,” Chen said.

But there can be a consequence. “Then they pay a penalty in terms of progression and promotion: the ‘motherhood penalty.’”

Women leaving the workforce during the pandemic – which has been termed a “shecession” – will have lasting and perhaps irreversible effects, Chen said. Particularly for women of color and single mothers, the pandemic has greatly increased housing and food insecurity. The gender pay gap and wealth gap will only be magnified the more women lose work experience compared to their male counterparts.

Many inflexible workplace practices persist – including the very notion that flexible work is a special “accommodation.” These outdated policies and practices limit women’s ability to balance the demands of their careers and the demands of their personal lives, Chen said. And, as long as those practices and policies continue, a significant proportion of women will not be able to realize their full professional and creative potential, she said.

The way Chen sees it, the economy won’t recover until caregiving hurdles are addressed, because caregiving affects people, particularly women, and their ability to work. Daycares and after-school programs are operating at half capacity, if at all, and need government funding so they can continue to function without having to raise rates beyond what people can afford, she said. The entire child care industry has received less COVID relief than any single airline.

“I think there’s still a fundamental feeling that child care is a private problem,” Chen said. “The thinking is that people chose to have kids, therefore they need to figure out what to do for their kids while they work.”

That might have been reasonable – until the pandemic hit, when parents were thrust into the role of homeschooling for all or part of the week.

“We talk about government relief for small businesses. We need to talk about relief for daycares and preschools,” said Chen, who was named in September to a group that advises Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on dealing with the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

“There’s literally no way for daycares and schools to maintain the same level of business they were doing before the pandemic,” she said.

Meanwhile, the problem of women dropping out of the workforce is likely to be long-term. It can be tough to return to the job market after leaving it, Chen said. Women have to explain why they left and prove they’re still up on the most recent trends and best practices for their work.

* * * *

While recently Chen has focused on the effect of the pandemic on women at Ohio State, she too has a passion for eliminating barriers that come with race.

Her parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan to pursue graduate degrees at the University of Wyoming – her father in electrical engineering, her mother in statistics. After graduating, they settled in a Seattle suburb where Chen grew up, the eldest of two.

Prone to being quiet as a child, Chen never responded when she heard the occasional jab at Asians – a classmate slanting his eyes or talking gibberish pretending to mimic Chinese, or the question: Which restaurant do your parents own?

While at Harvard, where she received her doctorate in economics, Chen noticed how, in seminars, the speakers sometimes glossed over her questions – unless male classmates repeated them.

“There is that stereotype of Asians being docile and accommodating. I think I fit that for a long time,” she said. “I think a lot of being quiet in the past was not wanting to put myself at risk. I thought, ‘If I just powered through, I wouldn’t get labeled as a troublemaker.’”

“Quiet” and “smart” aren’t the worst stereotypes sometimes given to Asians, but “quiet” can translate to submissive or passive, Chen said. As a result, Asians can confront the “bamboo ceiling” in their attempts to attain upper management positions at companies, she said. The perception is they can’t lead.

“We’re seen as not strong enough to be leaders,” she said.

And at universities and other settings, Asian-Americans often walk a fine line in discussions of racial biases, she said. With so many Asian students at colleges and universities, it can be perceived that any barriers they may have faced getting into college or doing well in college have largely been overcome.

“We aren’t underrepresented at colleges and universities,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t experience bias or racism.”

Still, Asian-Americans have not always supported underrepresented minorities either and often have their own racial prejudices, Chen said.

“As a community, we need to recognize that there will not be equity until the needs of all groups are addressed.”

In hopes of helping bring that about, Chen has increased her efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, and was appointed to the Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities at Ohio State last year. The task force hears from diverse groups on campus to understand and ultimately improve their campus experiences.

* * * *

Even with her efforts in many directions, Chen has, in recent months, figured out a way to slowly return to her research.

She studies climate change in Bangladesh and how rising sea levels have added more salt to the soil, making it unsuitable for farming. That process in turn has triggered farmers to migrate to other areas seeking work. One of Chen’s studies examines the trend of rural Bangladeshis to move to cities to work for a few months out of the year, before returning home again.

Chen first became fascinated with Bangladesh and its culture as an undergraduate. Her faculty adviser’s research was in Bangladesh, and Chen accepted her first job out of college there, working for the World Bank as a short-term consultant.

Trying to make progress on her current research, while keeping her children on their iPads when they need to be and finishing their assignments, Chen, like many parents, is getting a bit more used to the frenzied routine. It’s still exhausting. It still keeps her awake in the middle of the night sometimes thinking about how the school instruction her children are getting will ever catch up to where it should be and how she’ll be able to get her research back on track.

Yet, at the same time, Chen knows she is fortunate not having to hold multiple jobs nor reeling from losing a job. Regular trips to the gym help her keep the stress from each day’s hurdles at bay. She hasn’t given up those workouts and doesn’t plan to. They’re the one time devoted entirely to herself when she won’t have to fix or find or solve anything.

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