Before the pandemic, Miranda Doyle, 34, worked as a project manager at a Pennsylvania- based interior design company.
The business shut down temporarily when the state issued a stay-at-home order in March 2020, allowing Doyle to take care of her three children while they attended school remotely. The company resumed projects a few months later and she returned to work again that summer. But once Doyle found out that her kids’ schools were going hybrid in September, she knew something had to give.
“‘Well, I’m not going back to work,” Doyle remembers thinking. “So how do we figure this out?’”
She decided to strike out on her own. Doyle came across a digital entrepreneur course, which set the groundwork for her branding and website design business that she launched last year.
Many women struggle with balancing family and professional life. Those two worlds came to a head during the pandemic as a historic number of women dropped out of the labor force.
“We know that for many women, a lot of that disruption has to do with increased responsibility and expectations for caregiving—for children, for taking care of domestic work, and for elder care as well,” said Adia Harvey Wingfield, professor and sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Now with fewer disruptions due to COVID-19, women are going back to work. More than 920,000 women have entered the labor force this year. But instead of returning to a traditional 9-to-5, some women, many of whom are mothers looking for flexibility as they continue to face child care disruptions, have been joining the nearly ten million self-employed Americans.
This comes at a difficult moment for employers, who across industries are desperate for workers. As a record number of people quit their jobs and the number of openings has soared, businesses are scrambling. If these trends go on, employers may reevaluate their culture to meet the needs of working mothers whom they’ll need to help fill their ranks.
As of March, self-employment was 618,000 above the average for 2019. “The fact that self-employment remains high, even as the labor market has tightened enormously, indicates that self-employment is a choice rather than an act of desperation,” wrote Dean Baker, an economist, in an April report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy think tank.
At the start of the pandemic, self-employment rose for both women and men, who have a higher overall self-employment rate, according to an analysis of government data by Jessica Milli, an economist in Washington. But for men, self-employment has since returned to pre-pandemic levels, Milli found.
“The sustained increase in self-employment rates among women might have been driven by the need for women to have greater flexibility in their hours or desire for more work-family balance,” said Milli, the founder of Research 2 Impact, a research consulting practice specializing in economic and social policy issues impacting women and people of color.
This was certainly true for Doyle when the pandemic upended her childrens’ school schedules. With her new business, she no longer has to strictly abide by a 40-hour plus work week like she once did. Doyle now adjusts her hours or volume of work depending on her family’s needs. She chaperones her 12-year-old son’s boy scout field trips, volunteers in her kids’ classrooms and does school drop off and pick up every day.
Even as the acute part of the pandemic recedes, parents continue to grapple with child care gaps. Day care centers across the country are still seeing staffing shortages and some are closing, causing long wait-lists and precarity for families.
Jilandra Coffin, 34, of Charlotte, North Carolina, dabbled as a virtual assistant in 2020. She picked up the work while she was on leave from her position as an on-site school psychologist because her infant’s daycare had shut down. When her leave couldn’t be extended, she pivoted to her virtual assistant business full-time last year. The fact that her child care option remained unpredictable contributed to her decision to make a career shift.
“She was getting sick about every other week or she would have a quarantine every other week,” Coffin said of the brief stint that she re-enrolled her daughter in daycare.
In a March Pew Research report, 48 percent of respondents with a child younger than 18, cited child care issues as a reason they quit a job in 2021.
“My theory is that this is tied to the fact that the pandemic laid bare the woefully inadequate care infrastructure that we have in this country,” said Milli of women’s migration to self-employment. “We don't have a national paid leave program. And child care is extremely expensive for most families.”
As the pandemic tested the limits of mothers, it also inadvertently created a window of opportunity for them. In-person business grinded to a halt. And in turn, the demand for online services shot up. GoDaddy Venture Report, the web hosting company observed 60 percent growth in total entrepreneurs focused on eCommerce and online shopping from 2019 to 2021.
The accessibility of starting a digital business also allowed women, who were out of the labor market, to work. In the past, women more often quit jobs to start businesses, but now women who aren't working are using entrepreneurship to rejoin the workforce. That’s what Chunbei Wang, an economist at the University of Oklahoma, found through her preliminary research about this recent uptick of self-employed women.
Rebekah Hebdon, 25, who lives in Moses Lake, Wash., decided to launch a virtual assistant business after spending three years with her kids at home in 2021.
She currently works up to 20 hours per week because not all of her children are old enough for school. Yet, she and her husband have used her earnings to pay off a car and to save for a down payment on a house they plan to build. Her business has grown rapidly: Her first project paid $15 an hour. In a little over one year, Hebdon increased her internal hourly rate to $72.
Hebdon said that one of the things that she values most about working for herself is “the overall flexibility and freedom of time compared to when you are working for the man.”
Without more employer or government-supported programs, women with children continue to encounter professional barriers. That’s why entrepreneurship proves to be an avenue where women can advance. This is especially true for Black women, who continue to be a robust contingency of small business owners. According to the latest American Express State of the Women-Owned Business report, the number of Black women-owned businesses grew by 50 percent from 2014 to 2019.
“Black women in particular have had a long history of moving into entrepreneurship at pretty significant rates,” said Harvey Wingfield. “And a theory around that has been that when Black women specifically faced discrimination in the paid labor force, then entrepreneurship becomes a viable alternative.”
For businesses grappling with persistent worker shortages, women’s embrace of self-employment poses a challenge—and may force them to start instituting more hospitable practices to woo back working moms of all backgrounds. And the tide may already be turning, albeit very slowly, as some companies start to rethink their parent retention strategy.
66 percent of surveyed employers said they were willing to increase childcare support and one in three businesses felt that childcare issues factored “a great deal” into loss of productivity for employees, a March U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report found.
Podium and Recursion Pharmaceutical in Salt Lake City, for example, launched on-site daycares in 2021. Places like PayPal offer reimbursements for day care and offsite child care options for children between six months and four years.
But for some women, it’s already too little, too late.
Doyle said she would absolutely not return to a 9-to-5 job. ”I think I'm overall a happier person. I'm a happier wife, I'm a happier mom and it just benefits everybody.”