Despite advances in our understanding of power dynamics and opportunity gaps, the terms "glass ceiling" and "motherhood penalty" persist because they reflect an all-too-common reality: The U.S. still has a long way to go to address workplace and educational equity — especially among people of color, women, and parents.
"Time poverty" is less discussed than other success-limiting factors but just as crucial. Referring to the lack of discretionary time for women who have unpaid domestic responsibilities, time poverty limits — and in some cases, prevents — mothers from participating in the workforce.
Parents have 4.3 fewer hours per week to spend on education, according to researchers from the City University of New York and the University of Texas at El Paso. While it’s unsurprising that parents face a time crunch, the study uncovered troubling gender-based disparities.
Take, for instance, mothers with children under 1 year old. They have nine fewer hours per week to study than fathers in the same category. It’s not much better for moms with toddlers and preschoolers ages 1 to 5 — they have 8.4 fewer hours per week to dedicate to education than dads. Parents across the board were more likely to enroll part-time, with the highest rates among women raising children under 6.
Common sense tells us that taking longer to enter the workforce, or to complete a degree program meant to re-skill or upskill, will impact lifetime career earnings. In fact, the same researchers found that 52% of parents drop out within six years of starting college, despite earning higher GPAs than non-parents. Those who do graduate are slower to complete their programs.
Time poverty is not just an individual opportunity or societal equity issue. It’s an economic problem, contributing to a nationwide employment crisis.
U.S. labor force participation among women plunged during the pandemic, erasing more than three decades of gains. Today, more than one million women have yet to reenter the workforce, while men have fully recouped their employment losses since February 2020, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Higher ed leaders, policymakers and businesses need to re-imagine and innovate workforce training programs to address barriers faced by time-poor mothers and to fortify the leadership skills that women bring to businesses.
For example, competency-based education — which measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom — is one relatively new approach that has proved successful at saving time and money.
Online higher education also is gaining larger widespread acceptance across the nation, and research shows the structure of remote, competency-based education is more advantageous to women.
The online, competency-based model is just one approach. The key is flexibility — offering options that provide access regardless of child care status, location, or wherever the hands happen to be on the clock.
Women can also benefit from powerful career-returner programs such as Path Forward. The Manhattan-based nonprofit collaborates with companies to create return-to-work internships, specifically for those who have taken a break from their careers to focus on caregiving.
Time poverty is a structural issue that won’t be fixed overnight. But we can do better. By re-imagining the ways we study and work, we’ll open opportunities for mothers, resupply our regional workforces, and take another step toward gender equity for the next generation.
This guest essay reflects the views of Rebecca L. Watts, a regional vice president for Western Governors University, an online nonprofit, accredited, competency-based university with 3,000 students and 5,000 alumni in New York.