Pink Slips How layoffs create double jeopardy for working mothers.

Illustration by Maddy Cushman

For writer and two-time layoff veteran Elizabeth Alterman, when she and her husband were laid off from their journalism careers six weeks apart, Alterman did not expect her layoff to be taken less seriously. Instead, she was more worried about how her family of five was going to afford Christmas.

“I knew I was likely going to be laid off next, so everything my children asked for, I knew we couldn’t afford,” Alterman said by phone from New Jersey. “I thought, ‘You’re getting socks, and I’m sorry.’ That time period was a black cloud. It was the last thing I thought about at night and the first thing I thought about in the morning.”

Beyond explaining to her three sons what a dual layoff meant for their family, Alterman also had to contend with dismissive comments about what her layoff might portend for her professional future.

“Many people treated my job loss as if I’d announced I was going to stop knitting or quit bowling,” Alterman said, “like I was choosing to abandon a hobby! But when we said my husband was out of work, it was all gasps and sighs.”

And that disparate refrain, where a man’s job loss is mourned and treated as a significant event while a woman’s layoff, especially a mother’s layoff, is trivialized or used as an argument for why she should “return” home, is something working women hear incessantly. In April 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about “public views on changing gender roles,” and found that “51 percent of the adults surveyed said children are better off if their mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while only 34% said children are just as well off if their mother works.” Thirteen percent said it “depends” on the circumstances.

“Many people treated my job loss as if I’d announced I was going to stop knitting or quit bowling,” Alterman said, “like I was choosing to abandon a hobby! But when we said my husband was out of work, it was all gasps and sighs.”

What is fascinating about half of Americans thinking a mother’s place is at home, is almost two-thirds of American mothers are “the primary breadwinner for their families or earned at least one-quarter of their family’s income,” according to a 2016 report written by Dr. Sarah Jane Glynn for the Center for American Progress. Of those breadwinners, 40 percent of working women with children are the sole or primary earners for their households. In fact, the Pew Research Center notes working moms can be organized into two distinct groups: “5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.”

The U.S. Department of Labor also reported in 2010 that women comprised 47 percent of the total labor force and “are projected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total labor growth between 2008 and 2018.” In other words, women’s work matters, is significant to families and critical to increasing our nation’s Gross Domestic Product, and is not a fad or something whimsical.

 

The motherhood penalty and, oh, by the way, McDonald’s is hiring

“Even my own mother, who is a fast-food junkie, would say things like, ‘McDonald’s is hiring,’” Elizabeth Alterman said. “And I remembered thinking, ‘Weren’t you the one who wanted me to go to college?’ ‘I just think it would be less stress,’ my mom would say. Yeah, having people scream at me about where their Big Mac is sounds less stressful. No one was suggesting that my husband go work at a Sizzler.”

Unfortunately, the lack of empathy Alterman experienced as she navigated two layoffs showcases just how routine the bias is about who is affirmed as “necessary” in the American workforce.

“Sociological research on why women’s paid work is not seen as important as men’s has less to do with how much women earn and more with the meaning attributed to their work,” wrote Dr. Aliya Hamid Rao, assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University.

“This meaning may be shaped by a variety of things, but key is the fact that unpaid work—work like housework & childcare—is still very much seen as ‘women’s work,’” Rao said by email.

Sociologists such as Dr. Shelley J. Correll of Stanford University’s the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, also explore the “motherhood penalty,” whereby, all things being comparable, a working mother will earn less, much less, than working fathers, who tend to make more money once they have children (“the fatherhood bonus”), or single, childless women, who outearn working mothers at almost the same levels as men. On average, for a working mother, her income will suffer a five to seven percent hit for each child she has. In fact, many sociologists argue that the gender gap in wages is now likely more indicative of a childbearing penalty, given that American women’s education levels, for the first time in history, outpace men’s.

“Sociological research on why women’s paid work is not seen as important as men’s has less to do with how much women earn and more with the meaning attributed to their work,” wrote Dr. Aliya Hamid Rao, assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University.

In fact, couples, Rao wrote, often “frame men’s unemployment as a moral and practical problem; but they do not frame women’s unemployment as such.” Moreover, Rao’s research found that married heterosexual men’s job searches are prioritized in the household by the space they take up within the home to aid their job search, the way women often “safeguard men’s time from housework,” and the hefty amount of “emotional labor” women do to shield their husbands from rejection.

Those benefits men receive (and women often do not) reinforce gender inequality, especially when “couples fall back on highly gendered roles” for paid and unpaid work, Rao wrote.

 

 

“Opting out” is often not an option

You do not have to look far to read about mass layoffs: eBay, General Mills, Tesla, General Motors, Telltale Games, and, yes, even East Village staff members for the comedy improv group, the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yet, far from the 5-percent peak of Americans taking unemployment benefits during the Great Recession in 2009, America’s current insured unemployment rate is 1.5 percent. Of course, not everyone applies for unemployment benefits, so even that rate misrepresents how many laid-off Americans there are.

While fewer people may be collecting unemployment benefits, the economic blow is no less painful. The statistics on women’s unemployment rates are always reported as lower than men’s, wrote Dr. Christine Williams of The University of Texas at Austin, yet this statistical difference can often downplay women’s layoff experiences. Williams, a professor of liberal arts and the president-elect of the American Sociological Association, said by email, “When women lose their jobs, they can ‘hide’ behind the culturally accepted rationale that they are ‘opting out’ to take care of family members, usually children but increasingly parents as well.”

However, “opting out” is not an option for single, childless women whose incomes support aging or ill extended family or single, working mothers, which includes women who have never been married and women who are widowed, divorced, or separated. The distinction between the two groups is important as the 2013 research shows that “even though single mothers as a whole have the lowest income among all families with children, never married single mothers are particularly disadvantaged economically.” Eight years ago, the median family income for never-married mothers was $17,400, barely above the poverty threshold for one adult and one child.

“A huge number of families are headed by single mothers these days, which means a layoff has huge consequences for entire households—thus, the feminization of poverty we see unfolding,” said sociologist Dr. Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the forthcoming book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

 

 

Going beyond Nine to Five

In 2014, American essayist and author Leslie Jamison wrote about the Catch-22 of women who dare articulate their pain in “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”:

 

“I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice told, thrice told, 1001-nights-told–masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery,” Jamison wrote. “I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or the telling anymore. Plug it up.

 

When lay-off stories are told, especially in Hollywood, they are rarely, if ever, told from a woman’s perspective. Case in point, the anti-hero Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingston, in the cult 1999 film, Office Space, whereby Gibbons’ apathy ends up saving his bacon. Michael Keaton’s “heroic” role in the 1983 film, Mr. Mom, is surprisingly ahead of its time in imagining how a laid-off, white-collar man adjusts when his wife returns to work while he stays home. Yet, even for the film’s progressive, norm-shattering stance, such a premise was viewed strictly as a comedy.

A layoff is a financial and psychological wound that many people, regardless of gender, take years, even decades, to recover from.

Probably the film that comes closest to representing compellingly a woman’s frustration with and the fundamental gender unfairness of the work world is the 1980 film, Nine to Five, whereby three secretaries kidnap their sexist boss and run the company for themselves. Yet, of course, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin are not laid off; they are just fed up with a tyrannical misogynist. Nine to Five only hints at what three white women characters felt in the office almost 40 years ago. None of these films look at how women and people of color or queer people navigate an involuntary separation, which is more likely to happen to these groups based on systemic discrimination.

A layoff is a financial and psychological wound that many people, regardless of gender, take years, even decades, to recover from. Workers tend to make less money post-layoff, and not just for a little while, but for a long time, especially the closer the laid-off person is to age 50. After a layoff, a person is at greater risk for major health problems, such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, hypertension, and hospitalization. Research shows that even 17 years after a layoff, people are 4.5 percent less likely to trust others (7 percent for those “who placed a greater value on work and career”).

A layoff is not just a finite, end-of-story action; the collateral damage of a layoff is ever-present.

 

 

“I need to see where I could jump”

The loss of one’s job, be it through dismissal or layoff, is ranked as one of the top 10 life stressors on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, clocking in at number 8. In the 2009 film, Up in the Air, Man Number 3 put it perfectly: “On the stress level, I’ve heard that losing your job is like a death in the family, but personally I feel more like the people I work with were my family and I died.”

All metaphorical deaths aside, layoffs also influence how children view the world. The way parents react to a layoff becomes a model for how children view hardship, financial instability, and change.

Michelle Parrinello-Cason remembered from her own childhood why, even as she faced a “reduction in force” layoff as an assistant professor at a St. Louis community college in May 2018, she still managed to land on her feet by cultivating her writing and editing business.

“I grew up in a very traditional home—my dad worked outside of the home and my mom was a stay-at-home mom—until I was 12 years old, when they divorced,” Parrinello-Cason said. “So, my dad was very blue-collar, union household, my dad worked as an autoworker, and we lived way out in the country, and it was a very traditional, gender-normed house. My mom had a crippling anxiety disorder and she could not leave the house and [she had] no work experience. [My father] just didn’t pay child support, [and] even though he was ordered to do it, he just didn’t, and nobody did anything about it.”

Working several jobs at a time was, and is, a practice Parrinello-Cason could never quit, even as a 30-something professional with a Ph.D.

“We were on food stamps for a little while,” Parrinello-Cason said. “My little brother was 2 and we were on WIC. They wouldn’t shut the electricity off because there was some rule about if you had a child under the age of 5 or something they can’t shut it off, so they just keep running the electricity bill up. My mom did home health care for a little while, worked at a factory for a little while, and then she ended up at Walmart, which is where she still is till this day.”

So, beginning at age 14, Parrinello-Cason began working multiple jobs—babysitter, photographer’s assistant, a job at the golf course in her small town, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, and an on-going tutoring job. Working several jobs at a time was, and is, a practice Parrinello-Cason could never quit, even as a 30-something professional with a Ph.D.

“I don’t need a foot in two worlds,” Parrinello-Cason said, “but I need to see where I could jump, where I could land when this [job] started sinking out from underneath me. I think my tumultuous childhood prepared me for that without me really realizing it.”

 

Layoffs hurt diversity

Michelle Parrinello-Cason’s “choice,” to always have side gigs waiting in the wings, prepared her, at least economically, for her part in an unlucky cohort of 17 faculty members who lost their jobs in a “neutral layoff.”

Neutral layoffs are often the industry-standard for determining “fairly” who stays and who goes–the “last hired, first fired” method that many companies use when laying off workers. Yet, Dr. Alexandra Kalev, an associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, pointed out in the Harvard Business Review that these types of layoffs tend to “wipe out most or all of the gains they’ve made in diversity,” namely women and people of color.

“In my analysis,” Kalev wrote, “two-thirds of the companies that underwent major downsizings used position or tenure to make their cuts; it helps depersonalize a painful process and make it more efficient. But that method gets rid of strong employees, often people the company worked hard to recruit in the first place.”

Melody Gee, a teaching colleague of Parrinello-Cason’s, explained how Kalev’s research came to life when she was also laid off as a full-time faculty member and former department chair.

“In my analysis,” Kalev wrote, “two-thirds of the companies that underwent major downsizings used position or tenure to make their cuts; it helps depersonalize a painful process and make it more efficient. But that method gets rid of strong employees, often people the company worked hard to recruit in the first place.”

“You establish your identity in a certain way when you are a professional woman,” Gee said over bagels and lox at a neighborhood coffee shop in south St. Louis, Missouri. “You show up more prepared and more educated than everyone else because you have to and because your identity is on the line. And for women of color, it’s even more true. And so you develop this mastery and this skillset and this industry and it’s just gone. You are totally disempowered from everything you’ve made for yourself, but somebody can still take it away. It was reeling. You struggle too. You don’t have a terminal illness, your child is not missing, so how can you feel this bad about this? But you do. You do.”

What especially struck Gee was as a rhetorician she could not sway college administrators intent on “cutting costs” to stand down from balancing the books on the backs of professors.

“They were not going to hear or listen, and they were not persuade-able,” Gee said. “They had already made a decision. All of my expertise failed me. All of my rhetorical prowess just failed. It was really demoralizing to study and be right and say it well, and you can still fail.”

 

A layoff by any other name is … bullshit

Michelle Parrinello-Cason said many of the euphemisms institutions use to describe a layoff only exacerbate the pain. “Reduction in force,” “involuntary separation,” “restructuring,” “smartsizing”—all verbal stand-ins which take away the onus from the people who made the decision to “cut” other people’s jobs.

Kalev, the sociologist at Tel Aviv University, revealed that companies who lay off workers with the poorest performance, instead of those who rely on “neutral layoffs,” do not harm diversity. In other words, the outdated “last hired, first fired” strategy often backfires.

“I saw that the administration had referred to us as ‘leavers,’” Parrinello-Cason said of being forwarded an internal email she believed she was not supposed to see. “As in, ‘Well, we haven’t figured out the policy for leavers who come back as adjuncts.’ And I lost my mind. The rhetorical positioning of that takes all of the agency away from them.”

Not having an institution take responsibility for a decision that deeply affects its employees is something especially hard to swallow for the people who often do the best work. Kalev, the sociologist at Tel Aviv University, revealed that companies who lay off workers with the poorest performance, instead of those who rely on “neutral layoffs,” do not harm diversity. In other words, the outdated “last hired, first fired” strategy often backfires.

 

The paradox of layoffs

In fact, the paradox of layoffs, which have served as American commerce’s short-term funding solution since the late 1970s, is that layoffs often do not improve struggling companies in the way leaders hope.

The Harvard Business Review highlights the research of McMaster University sociology professor Art Budros, who found that in 1979 fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 100 companies announced layoffs whereas in 1994, 45 percent of them did. Moreover, a McKinsey Survey of 2,000 U.S. companies found from 2008 to 2011, 65 percent of companies resorted to layoffs. Layoffs are often branded as the unfortunate consequence of mysterious “forces outside of our control,” when in reality layoffs are often the symptom of poor leadership.

Dr. Wayne F. Cascio, an economist at the University of Colorado-Denver, and Dr. John W. Boudreau, a professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, have researched how layoffs negatively affect stock prices, stifle business, develop fewer new products or services, and underestimate how a layoff destroys the productivity and morale of those who are left behind.

Cascio and Boudreau do, of course, mention appropriate business cases for layoffs in their research. Yet, American businesses and institutions’ over-reliance on layoffs bears serious reconsideration.

 

A woman’s work is never done

Perhaps one of the most insidious reasons why women may be more prone to layoffs, especially recurring layoffs, is illegal: child-bearing status. Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of The New York Times compiled a detailed report in June 2018, which showcased all the ways working class and professional women are sidelined in their careers, including “untimely” layoffs that just so happened to coincide with a pregnancy or the birth of a child.

Quality, affordable child care, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research writes, is one of the primary reasons less than half of women participate in the global, formal economy as compared to three-fourths of men. While it is understandable if women (and men) choose to stay at home, it is beyond vexing to know that much of the American economy is set-up on an unequal and out-dated premise: that women, including working women, should be the default caregivers of children and family.

While the Pew Research Center reports that fathers, on average, have increased their involvement and care for children, women’s time with children still almost doubles the average amount of time dads spend with their kids. This disparity and many men’s reluctance to take parental leave reinforces employers’ old-fashioned ideas. As the podcast The Longest Shortest Time put it, if more men would take parental leave, working mothers might not be viewed as the usurpers of “company time.”

Dismissiveness of women’s layoff experiences might, in fact, be linked to what employers already believe about the stereotypes of working mothers.

What makes social change difficult, though, is many American men fear they will be viewed as slackers if they take parental leave, even though top companies have bumped up paid parental leave from four weeks in 2015 to 11 weeks in 2017. In a Deloitte survey of 1,000 men, more than one-third of respondents said taking parental leave would “jeopardize their position.”

And working fathers’ fear is a universal one, one that working mothers know, and pay for, all too well.

“Being available 24-7 in so many different career paths now is the epitome of American workerness somehow,” said Jenna Isaacson Pfueller, who has been laid off from three jobs in the past decade. “For anyone to dare say, ‘Well, I have to be out of work at 4 o’clock to pick up my kid, that’s just how it’s going to be.’ Sadly, that’s where people decide you might be one of the more disposable people on staff, and it sucks.”

Dismissiveness of women’s layoff experiences might, in fact, be linked to what employers already believe about the stereotypes of working mothers. As sociologist Dr. Shelley Correll points out in her research, mothers are damned if they put in less face time, even when performance does not suffer (the stifling, guilt-ridden “good mom” stereotype). Or, if women are heroically responsive and always visible in the office, they are also damned because they violate the covert cultural assumption that women should prioritize family, leading employers to view such women as “less warm and likable” (the nefarious “bad mom” stereotype).

“Either way,” Correll said, “[working mothers] are offered fewer organizational rewards.”

This Catch-22 is not lost on Isaacson Pfueller, a photojournalist turned digital marketing specialist, who remembered what she thought about working mothers before she became one.

“When we were in college and the older women around us had families and children, I saw them bounce around from job to job and [they] had shifting careers, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know why they’re doing that. They’re crazy. I’m going to be in journalism forever and I’m going to go to this big paper and I’m just going to keep working, no matter what, and I’m going to have a family too,’” Isaacson Pfueller said.

“I feel like a real asshole now, looking back, feeling all judgy, because I had no idea what those women were going through.”

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