When I returned from my three-month maternity leave to my position as cofounder of a childcare tech startup, I realized my LinkedIn profile was outdated. As I updated some fields, I came across the industry section, where you can identify what sector you work in at the top of your profile.
Scrolling through the list, I saw banking, farming, mining, computer software, real estate . . . and even tobacco. But out of 148 industries, the one I wanted to select—childcare—was not an option. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry in the United States employs an estimated 12,520 people; the childcare industry employs over a million.
Add to this the recent viral Medium post that pointed out the ways that LinkedIn has fostered implicit bias against women by leaving off options for a person to add “parental leave,” “adoption leave,” or other forms of caregiving work as a work status, and you have an object lesson in the ways women are penalized in the workplace and the ways that caregiving work is undervalued.
The dismal representation for childcare professionals on LinkedIn feels symbolic to me. The childcare sector is one of the most essential parts of our economy—a workforce that in turn enables the work of tens of millions of people. But this work is often unacknowledged and frequently taken for granted. It is labor that is historically undercompensated and undervalued.
As the cofounder and president of a childcare company, I take great pride in my work, and in the care professionals I work with: the preschool teachers, the daycare center workers, the nannies, the babysitters, the elementary education specialists, and the family members and friends who are unsung facilitators of our families and economies. They mold our young people in their most formative years. This is essential and important work that allows us to live the lives we do and do the work we do. It is part of the infrastructure of our country.
On a national scale, childcare workers are the second from bottom percentile of annual earnings, across all occupations, earning on average $16,283 per year, which is $37,605 less than than the average national salary of $53,888. Preschool teachers fare only somewhat better (16th).
Why is this? The answer is complicated, but there are a number of contributing factors. Childcare centers are expensive to operate. The countries and places that are providing living wages for caregivers and high-quality childcare at affordable rates always operate on a publicly subsidized basis. There have been numerous times in our history where the United States came close to this model. In the 1970s, as more and more women entered the workforce, a bipartisan bill to provide childcare for all U.S. children was introduced. But President Richard Nixon ultimately vetoed the bill, fearing it would Sovietize American families. The Cold War has long been over, but these attitudes remain in some corners of the political system.
Childcare has also long been associated with women, or termed as “women’s work.” Industries with a women-dominant workforce are unfortunately often lower paid industries. On top of that, 40% of childcare workers are women of color. Both racism and sexism create the conditions for low compensation in the childcare industry.
What is so remarkable about society’s practice of undervaluing and underpaying caregivers is that all working parents—rich, middle-class, and poor—entrust our most valued possession, our children, to their care. We are fortunate that childcare professionals are willing to do the difficult job of caring for our children each day, let alone for low wages.
But more than this, all of us, including people without children, rely on these caregivers’ work to keep our very economy functioning. The pandemic has shown us this, as clear as day. In 2020, largely due to childcare issues, nearly 2.2 million women dropped out of the workforce between February and October. With daycare centers and schools closing, many parents are barely keeping their heads above water. Corporations struggle to find the labor they need, because workers need to stay home with their kids. Further, the number of discrimination claims from parents surged, as parents retaliated against firings for taking their children to doctor appointments or in order to juggle homeschooling during work hours.
A first step would be to pay childcare workers, most of whom are women and disproportionately women of color, what they are worth. President Biden has proposed an ambitious plan to inject $775 billion into the care economy. This plan raises the pay and benefits for childcare workers, and creating 1.5 million new jobs in the industry. This is a critical step, as increasing wages not only allows childcare professionals to pay their own bills (something nearly impossible on the $16,283 per year the average childcare worker earns), it also attracts highly skilled people to pursue careers in caregiving.
Moreover, certain companies are also taking the step of reimbursing parents for a set number of backup childcare days per month—childcare done when regular arrangements fall through because a child is sick or a daycare closed. A bill currently working its way through hearings in California would mandate that any company with more than 1,000 employees provide 60 hours of subsidized backup childcare as an employee benefit. This would mean that the thousands of caregivers who currently do unpaid, last minute childcare as a favor to family or neighbors could then receive pay for that work.
It’s also an opportunity to think about how we compensate labor. New Zealand is attempting to remedy the gender pay gap and low pay in the childcare industry with a new pay equity law, which poses the query whether care work, which I mentioned is performed predominantly by women, is just as demanding and dangerous as better-paid jobs mostly performed by men, including prison guards.
In past, job evaluation metrics ignored emotional labor when it came to evaluating skill levels required for a given profession. We are now fully aware of the indescribable value emotional intelligence brings to a wide variety of professions.
And if you’re wondering, LinkedIn has responded to the criticism raised, and announced last week that it is adding the option to add work statuses including stay-at-home mom and dad and other caregiving roles. Turns out, it was easy for LinkedIn to add a category to their drop-down menu. But changing the perception of the childcare profession is a more difficult matter.
Becka Klauber Richter is the president and cofounder of Helpr, a child care company that offers parents backup and helps employers subsidize child care for working parents.