More workers are returning to the office. Mothers may end up paying the price

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Diageo names a new North America CEO, female community health workers in Africa are petitioning for proper pay (or any at all), and Fortune senior writer Alicia Adamczyk explores how return-to-office mandates may have negative effects on female workers. Enjoy your weekend!

– Inflexible work. Labor Day marked a turning point in the U.S. return-to-office tug-of-war, with office occupancy rates spiking more than 50% in the weeks following the public holiday this year, according to new data from security provider Kastle Systems

That’s good news for the bosses who have been clamoring to get their workers back in person. But it could make life more difficult for caretakers—particularly women—who relied on the flexibility of working from home to juggle all of their responsibilities

The benefits of remote work for women have been well-documented (though you probably don’t need reports and experts to explain them to you). It is credited with keeping more prime-age women in the labor force, and may help decrease workplace sexual assault and harassment

It also led to a higher rate of women becoming or trying to get pregnant, a recent report from the bipartisan advocacy organization Economic Innovation Group found. “Increased flexibility and time helped boost birth rates over the pandemic, specifically for wealthier or more educated women,” the report reads. Makes sense. It’s much easier to balance work and family obligations when you don’t have to worry about commuting or sitting in an overly-air conditioned cubicle all day.

There are also the financial implications of RTO, like buying new office attire. The pink tax wasn’t repealed during the pandemic; women still pay more than men, on average, for clothes, makeup, accessories, and so on. 

Now all of those benefits are at risk of reversing as workplaces go back to the male-centric practices and expectations. And return-to-office mandates aren’t the only challenge caretakers and their families are facing. The end of September marks the start of the so-called childcare cliff, when $24 billion in federal child care grants will expire. The ensuing financial strain could lead to more than 3 million children losing their child care spots, according to a report from the nonpartisan Century Foundation.

Affordable child care, though, is already difficult to find. And when families can’t afford to hire help, women in opposite-sex relationships are more likely to drop out of work to stay home with the kids. (They also say unaffordable child care is the No. 1 reason they won’t have more kids.) The U.S. economy can’t really afford to keep women on the sidelines—the labor force participation rate has been dropping for decades—and yet so few allowances are made to help workers keep, well, working. 

“Working mothers today have little to no safety net when it comes to structural governmental support,” says Kate Anderson, chief of staff at Motherly, a parenting platform. “Allowing mothers and all parents to have flexibility as to time in the office and allowing them to work remotely can lead to lower attrition and happier workers.”

Of course, there are drawbacks to remote work, and not every woman wants to work from home (or can). Remote work benefits all working parents, and taking care of the children shouldn’t just fall on moms. These are things we all know. But the reality is, as Vox’s Rani Molla wrote, “women need more flexible work arrangements, because women have more to do.” And over the past few years, there seemed to finally be real momentum to change the U.S.’s inflexible—or, in some places, nonexistent—workplace and leave policies. Paid leave came back to the forefront of the national conversation, parents received monthly checks that greatly reduced child poverty, and remote work helped some families grow and flourish.

The U.S. still doesn’t have mandated paid leave, and the monthly checks were discontinued long ago. Now, the return–to-office ramp up suggests we’re fully returning to pre-pandemic corporate work norms. Mothers may end up paying the price.

Alicia Adamczyk

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