There’s an image you may remember. A woman ironing, a woman homeschooling, a woman doing housework, and another woman sat on the sofa with the only man depicted in the scene. This was part of the UK Government’s ‘Stay At Home’ campaign earlier this year, and this particular advert was soon pulled after complaints of sexism.
Sadly, however, it seems it has been a fairly accurate reflection for a lot of women during the last twelve months with reports into women at work painting a gloomy picture on the impact of lockdown on gender equality.
Back when lockdown began in March 2020, we were extolling the virtues of a flexible working world and the equality that working from home can bring. Speaking with Anna Whitehouse (Mother Pukka) on flexible working, we discussed how it was a great leveller and a way to make the workplace more inclusive. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has highlighted it as a way to narrow the gender paygap and increase opportunities for all genders, abilities, and racial backgrounds.
In many circumstances, flexible working allows both parents to assume shared responsibility for childcare, a role traditionally left to women. In the long term, it gives fathers the chance to have a more active role in their children’s lives, while giving mothers more opportunity to progress in their careers.
“Working mums have borne the brunt of the childcare during the pandemic. To manage that they’ve been on furlough, been made redundant or fitted in their work in the cracks and crevices of time between Zoom lessons, before the kids get up and once they’ve gone to bed,” says Change Coach and Founder of That Balanced Life Coaching, Laura Bentley.
Jewellery designer, Lucille Whiting is one such parent who has been homeschooling five children alone. Plans for her business, Sophia Alexander Jewellery, have had to be sidelined. “I’ve set up a waiting list of clients, but it’s very obvious that I’ve lost a lot of work.”
Women out of work
Existing gender inequalities coupled with a high level of disruption to female-dominated sectors have seen women’s jobs being disproportionately affected by Covid-19. PWC’s Women In Work Index warned that we could see the pandemic reversing any progress towards gender equality.
“Women are statistically more likely to be furloughed than men,” says Nancy Roberts, founder and CEO of Umbrella Analytics, which seeks to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. “This is despite the fact that women are under-represented in the labour force generally.”
Since July 2020 until January 2021, the figures show 2.32 million employments were furloughed with female job holders compared with 2.18 million held by men. These figures are partly down to the fact that female-dominated industries such as retail (where 58% of employees are women), travel, and hospitality, have been among the worst affected by the pandemic.
Roberts also notes that current data shows women jobseekers are less likely to be hired than men at present, presenting a double-whammy on the job front. It is particularly concerning for women over 50, as one in four older people have been placed on furlough during the pandemic and they statistically find it harder to return to employment.
The effects are not just here in the UK. A Mckinsey report showed more women in corporate America were negatively affected by Covid-19, and particularly women of colour, who were more likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed. It found one in four women were thinking of leaving or downgrading their jobs due to the pandemic.
A backwards step
While job losses and recruitment prospects have exacerbated the problem of lower financial security for women, one of the biggest issues we have seen come out of the pandemic is the number of hours women have spent on childcare and homeschooling.
Prior to the pandemic a report showed mothers who work from home take on three more hours a week of childcare compared to fathers. Since Covid-19, we have seen this figure increase with homeschooling. Research published by The University of Cambridge Insitute for New Economic Thinking found women were spending close to six hours a day on childcare and teaching, about a third longer than men.
The PWC reports states: “Covid-19 is also amplifying the unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work carried by women.” Indeed, for some women, the past 12 months has not been a haven of equality but a step back in time to what they have likened to a return to a 1950s housewife.
“The clear divide between men and women when it comes to carrying the burden of childcare is concerning. More needs to be done to address the expectations of employers when it comes to their employees. When does a man get asked: ‘who’s looking after the children today?’ These assumptions are holding us back,” says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder of flexible work platform, Flexa.
“The cancellation of the gender pay reporting legislation in 2020 was another setback in the fight for equality,” adds Roberts. “All of these factors are combining to create a major step backwards, with some experts estimating that decades of progress are being reversed.”
Around the world a similar picture has been seen with an Ipsos survey confirming that more women have been juggling intensifying workloads.
The parental load
For Whiting, it has been frustrating having to acknowledge that her career “isn’t as important.”
She is not alone in feeling her work has had to take a backseat compared to her partner. During the first lockdown, Louise Portass took on almost all of the childcare and schooling while trying to run her web design business, Serendaya. Anna Hamman, founder of male soap bar brand, Jims Bricks has managed very little work in the day while her husband had to work 8 am – 6 pm.
“There has been a perception amongst some of those that I know that I am not actually working because I don’t ‘have a job’ so this has all been easier for me,” she says. In reality, she has been working until 11 pm most nights including weekends, juggling the launch of a business with caring for two young children.
In the past decade the number of mothers going self-employed has doubled as it is often seen as a way to achieve more flexibility around childcare. Yet the gender paygap in self-employment is large. Research in the US found on average self-employed women earn little over half that of their male counterparts and those who work full-time are likely to suffer a motherhood pay penalty.
It is probably unsurprising that a lot of mothers have put their work on hold to allow their partners’ work to take precedence as the main income earner. For Michelle Davison, founder of AMDandMe sensory toys this also saw her husband “totally commandeer” the office space when he began working from home.
A common thread to conversations we had with women was how the home workspace had been divided, often with the women being left to find other places to work (or not work) during the day. In fact, while figures from The Office of National Statistics highlight how those who work from home tend to work later at night, this has been especially true for many working mothers. They have had to cram their working hours into evenings once the childcare duties have finished. This has also exacerbated the emotional toll on women during the pandemic.
“I can’t concentrate during the daytime so have to work late at night, which is exhausting,” says business coach and mentor, Amber Leach, who runs Audacious Lives while trying to work with a baby and a 12-year-old at home.
Davison echoes these thoughts. “I’ve also often found myself working later at night or weekends, especially when the nurseries were closed and I was looking after my four-year-old son all day, juggling housework, and trying to run my business.”
By May last year, CEO of learning and development specialists, Perfectly Blended, Lucy Phillips was exhausted, stressed, and on the edge of burnout. “The realities of being a single mum, supporting three children with their schooling and continuing to delight my clients over this prolonged period have been simply enormous,” she says. “Schooling often had to come secondary to me being able to earn and put food on the table.”
Understandably, the last year has been incredibly tough for single parents. 90% of single parents are women and the added burden of homeschooling while trying to work and care for a child solo has been added stress they have had to battle.
The emotional load is an important aspect of how this pandemic has affected women. While the virus has been a testing and turbulent time for millions, Bentley has seen first-hand how it has affected her female clients. “They have taken on the majority of the burden, sacrificed their career growth and navigated a huge tidal wave of emotions. From resentment, to rage, gratitude to exhaustion; it’s been an incredibly stressful time.”
Psychotherapist and workplace stress consultant at Mind Your Business, Geraldine Joaquim agrees that women have suffered an incredible emotional burden. “Flagging energy levels, trying to be and do everything, splitting your attention, managing family emotions, no breaks or time for self-care, not being able to see friends or family, feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to… That’s going to affect you.”
The positive impact of lockdown on gender equality
But it has not all been doom and gloom for women. There have been some who have discovered the joys of having both parents or partners at home, which has allowed them greater flexibility, time and space to progress with their work and share the household burden.
Clare Haxby’s husband negotiated a 4-day week when lockdown began to share the homeschooling. She says creatively, it has been expansive and enabled her to earn a regular income through her artwork.
Independent antenatal instructor Samantha Bevington says the days of waiting at the window for her husband to return home from work are long gone. “I remember the early days of having our daughter, years ago. He’d finish work and I’d be sitting at home, unshowered, baby crying, just waiting for that relief of a helping hand… Now 5pm comes, he walks downstairs and we can share the load of making dinner, bathing the kids and prepping for the next day. It’s one less hour of chaos for me, one less hour of being crammed onto a train for him – and for both of us there is more time than ever to commit to our business projects in the evening.”
Cat Kemble, founder of Dolly Sheep has seen her handmade Etsy business “skyrocket” due to having more time to dedicate to it. After her partner was made redundant, the roles were reversed, and while he took over childcare duties, she focused on her business. “I ended up asking him to stop looking for another job as I knew my business would always come second if he did.”
The past year has also shifted attitudes towards flexible working. With more men experiencing flexible working, the term has become “less gendered” according to Johnson-Jones. “Men now want flexible working almost as much as women (68% vs 74%) and are just as likely to ask for it as women (55% would ask for flexible working).
“In addition, some of the stigma around flexible working has started to shift. It’s no longer seen as ‘shirking from home’, or at least not by the majority of the population. By simultaneously de-gendering and de-stigmatising the term ‘flexible work’ we remove the negative connotations of women in the workplace – that we are less committed or productive because of our circumstances.”
A fairer future?
Roberts says, “The data on the impacts of Covid clearly shows that women are bearing the brunt in economic terms.… The fallout of the pandemic is not being equally shared, and my concern is how much further things will slide, and how long it will take us to redress these imbalances when the pandemic is finally over.”
Johnson-Jones agrees there is still work to do, “My hope is that, in the medium to long-term, this change in perception and increasingly equal uptake of flexible working will have a positive effect on equality, but we have a long way to go.”
Flexible working and homeworking have many benefits and the potential to balance workloads and mental loads for men and women. As schools start to go back and many parents can resume a routine that doesn’t involve homeschooling, we may start to see the balance even out again over time. But we need to be conscious of the long-term effects this past year has had on many people, and especially women.
The mental exhaustion and added stress alone will require recovery time. Joaquim says, “It’s really important to give yourself some time to decompress before rushing headlong into the ‘next normal’. A little time just to change gear, regain your energy levels which has been sorely depleted, and retrain your attention.”
The fact that International Women’s Day falls on the day that schools reopen in England is perhaps more poignant than we think. It is a day when many women are suddenly going to feel liberated, free of the shackles of homeschooling, and once again able to use their time for progessing their own work and careers.
Did you know you can also subscribe to get our quarterly digital magazine packed with expert insights and practical tips. on having a happier, healthier, more productive work from home life? Our annual print edition is also available here curating all our best articles in a beautiful magazine.