Jennifer Gemski, who worked as an assistive technology specialist at The Campus School at Boston College, quit her job in early September after three years when her employer wouldn’t budge on its in-office requirement that made life harder for this working mother.

“It was hard to leave, but I couldn’t make the schedule work,” the 53-year-old Medford, Mass., mother of three children ages 15, 19, and 22.

“My first meeting was at 8 a.m. every day, and my last meeting ended at 3:30 p.m. By the time I got home, it was almost five. And, as part of my responsibilities. I often did lectures at night until 8 p.m. “I could no longer balance being a mom and being in the office with no flexibility in my schedule. It was simply too much, too stressful, and they wouldn’t work with me.”

Marcelle Folk, 37, a business development specialist at EXIM, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, also faced similar challenges with the five-day a week requirement to be in the office that went into effect in May.

When her granddaughter was born in June to her 19-year-old daughter, she knew she would be on call for caregiving and an office job with a long commute wasn’t going to work. Her manager, however, made it clear that there was no wiggle room to negotiate for work from home time.

“I was told I had to come to work every single day, I just couldn’t,” the Lothian, Md., resident said. “It messed with my head — the traffic going to work, the frustration with trying to get there.”

marcelle folk

Marcelle Folk and grandchild (courtesy of Folk)

Stories like Gemski’s and Folk’s worry experts who say that employers’ back-to-the office mandates could set back workplace participation gains this group has chalked up in recent years.

In 2022, 65.6% of working women worked full-time, year-round, the largest share on record. In August, the labor force participation rate for women ages 25 to 54 was 77.6%, compared with 77% in February 2020 just before the pandemic shutdown began. The rate for women with children under 5 is 70.4% — an all-time high, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

One reason for the increase: Work-from-home flexibility made it easier for caregivers to take on and keep a job, according to the researchers. About a quarter of prime-age women with children, regardless of the age of their youngest child, reported working from home in the first half of 2023, the Brookings report found.

That could be rolled back as companies require employees to be in the office more, a potentially budget-busting move for many families as childcare costs skyrocket. For employers, they may again face rising turnover if they’re not flexible.

‘Back to the sidelines’

“The pandemic unexpectedly opened the door wide to flexibility and created attractive work opportunities that hadn’t been options before, especially for those who were sidelined with caregiving responsibilities for children or aging parents,” Gwenn Rosener, partner, and co-founder of FlexProfessionals, a recruiting and staffing firm for the Boston and Washington, D.C., areas, told Yahoo Finance.

“To caregivers, flexibility is imperative and the narrowing of remote or hybrid opportunities will undoubtedly push many of them back to the sidelines.”

So far this year, a number of large employers from Amazon to Citigroup to Disney, Google and Meta have called workers back to the office with not-so-thinly veiled threats of consequences for not complying ranging from job loss to dinged performance reviews.

According to a survey by The Conference Board, more than half (54%) of companies are mandating workers be in the office or are strongly encouraging workers to be on-site.

Single mother carrying newborn baby and working at home. Woman using laptop while son playing in living room.

(Photo: Getty Creative)

At the same time, the opportunities for remote work are dwindling. In August, 9.13% of US paid job postings on LinkedIn were offering remote work, down from 17.8% a year ago.

Remote work “is likely to persist, albeit at a reduced level compared to the peak during the pandemic,” Rand Ghayad, LinkedIn’s head of economics and global labor markets, told Yahoo Finance.

“We do need to evolve beyond what was a crisis-driven execution of flexibility,” Cali Williams Yost, CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc., said of the pandemic. “But there’s a way to do it beyond a mandate. Teams need to be able to look at the work that is being done, figure out what aspects of that work would benefit from some more in-person interaction, what can be done remotely, and establish those parameters.”

One huge concern is when a parent returns to an office and must farm out childcare to babysitters or daycare centers, their incomes don’t always justify the cost. The annual cost of a childcare center for a typical American family with an infant and a four-year-old is nearly $18,000, according to the Center for American Progress.

An average New York City family, for example, is spending over a quarter of their income to pay for child care, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Pittsburgh, that translates to 14.3% of a median family income.

Cost of childcare may drive women out of in-office jobs

And a two-punch of childcare staffing shortages and an end to pandemic funding is set to increase the affordability challenges facing parents.

“The child care workforce has not rebounded from the pandemic-induced recession in the way that employment in most other industries has, and we may see further reductions in employment as pandemic recovery funds intended to stabilize the child care industry dry up,” Chloe Gibbs, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Yahoo Finance.

“Without those resources, childcare providers may be faced with raising prices to recruit and retain staff or eliminating slots that they cannot staff, both of which make childcare more difficult for families to access and afford. Return to in-person work and the contraction of child care availability will likely put families back in the difficult spot of having to find (and afford) new childcare arrangements.”

Those factors may drive more mothers out of the workforce — or at least their current jobs.

According to Motherly’s 2023 State of Motherhood report, 18% of working mothers in the US left their jobs within the past year, citing a lack of workplace flexibility and an inability to find affordable childcare as the top two reasons.

A Deloitte report from August found that two-thirds of remote workers would quit their jobs if they had to go back into the office five days a week. Those with caregiving responsibilities surveyed were 1.3 times more likely than non-caregivers to say they’d leave.

That’s what Gemski and Folk both did, but they found other more flexible opportunities.

Firms that allowed employees to continue working from home are more likely to retain their female employees. A recent study by the workforce data company Revelio Labs found that when companies switched job positions from fully in-person to fully remote they wound up hiring nearly 6% more women.

Initially, Folk took time off from her job under the Family Medical Leave Act. “But when my eight weeks were up, I chose to resign. Family is more important,” said Folk who now works a part-time remote position for less money. “I wanted to be available when my daughter needed me.”

Gemski also didn’t waste time finding a new opportunity. She landed a full-time hybrid work position via FlexProfessionals and works two days a week in the office and the remainder at home.

“I have more flexibility now to manage my own schedule,” she said. “It’s the little things – being there in the morning, or being there in the afternoon to take my son to his football games.”

Kerry Hannon is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a workplace futurist, a career and retirement strategist, and the author of 14 books, including “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work” and “Never Too Old To Get Rich.” Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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