International Women’s Day: Has the pandemic set back women’s equality?

“Woman continue to be the backbone and fall-back option – when all runs smoothly they can focus on work, but when things get tough they are needed at home…”

“I feel like we’re back to the 1950s!” 

“There have been no thank yous, no recognition – it’s like we are invisible – but we are the teachers, cleaners, cooks and then work full-time till the early hours.”

“Women have taken the hit in this pandemic, often regardless of which person is the main breadwinner.”

Sound familiar?

These are the frustrated and weary voices of parents who have spent the last 12 months battling in an unprecedented pressure cooker, with home-school classes, unmovable work deadlines, demands from smaller children and never-ending household chores bearing down on them.

As the lid is partially lifted today, with parents finally able to wave their children off at the school gates once more, a huge collective sigh of relief can be heard reverberating around the country. We made it.

The fact that today also represents International Women’s Day – a date earmarked to celebrate the achievements of women over the past year – feels an appropriate time to reflect.

This year, alongside the more traditional recognition of women’s successes politically, culturally and economically, we should also recognise the monumental achievements of those who have strived to keep their children educated and entertained, their employers satisfied and their households functioning amidst a pandemic. That, in itself, has required a Herculean effort.

But attention also needs to be paid to the future and the changes still needed to right the lingering inequalities and outdated perceptions of women that the recent lockdowns have made all too apparent.

A survey of nearly 300 people, conducted by Inloco indicates that whilst 17% of households shared the childcare and schooling responsibilities equally during the last lockdown, in the majority of households women shouldered the home-schooling, childcare and household load.

Of the respondents who reported undertaking most, if not all, of the childcare during lockdowns, 94% were women. Some 92% reported having performed up to 10 hours of additional household chores a week, including things like meal prep and cleaning, while nearly half (49%) undertook at least 10 hours of additional childcare or home-schooling a week. Together, this amounts to a staggering 2.5 days’ worth of additional work to be fitted into each week. For some the time commitment was even greater, with 25% of mums dedicating 20 – 50 additional hours each week to schooling and caring for their children, 80% of which were also balancing work.

The mental toll

The toll this has taken on parents has been huge. It’s been an exhausting journey for many, that has at times preyed upon parental guilt, impacted mental health and been incredibly lonely. As a result, more than half (53%) of mothers were concerned about their own mental health and wellbeing while, of those, 68% were also worried about their kids’ mental health.

When it comes to those who had to juggle work alongside home-schooling, childcare and household tasks, the stats speak for themselves.

Of the mums who reported undertaking most, if not all, of the childcare during lockdowns, more than 70% were either in full or part-time paid employment. Over half (53%) of working women did not have any additional external help, and this is despite only 14% being able to keep their children in school.

Adding to this, data from a survey of 50,000 working mums in January by the Trades Union Congress alongside flexible working campaigner Mother Pukka, found nearly half (48%) were worried about being treated negatively by their employers because of their childcare responsibilities. Seven in 10 requests for furlough, to help these mums focus on home-schooling or childcare, have also been denied.

Perceptions of women

With mums having had to take on the bulk of childcare and household responsibilities, the ramifications for women as a collective is marked. Within both the workplace and wider society, traditional perceptions of women as the primary childcare providers – notions that were gradually starting to be broken down pre-pandemic – have been reasserted.

Of the mums that responded to the Inloco survey, 68% either agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the perception of mothers as being the primary childcare providers in a family. Nearly a quarter (23%) of men also agreed on this point.

As one working mum from the Inloco community explains: “The pandemic has brought to the fore the ingrained assumption that the care of children is the mother’s primary role, even when having their own jobs to maintain. For me it has highlighted how little we have progressed, and how far we still need to go, to achieve equality for women.”

Flexible working champion Katy Fridman, who runs Flexible Working People,  supporting more than 32,000 people on Facebook to secure working patterns that suit them, believes “the pandemic has had a devastating effect on working mums”.

“It has been an exhausting juggling act with many being forced to take furlough, leave their jobs altogether and to put their careers on hold. For those who have carried on working, many are hanging on by a thread while they do their jobs on top of home-schooling and other responsibilities. There is not a working mum that I know who has not felt at breaking point at various points during this crisis – it’s been relentless.”

Another mum from the Inloco community shares her first-hand experience of the mental toll the pandemic has been inflicting on working mums. “I manage a team of intelligent, professional women,” she says. “I have seen their confidence fall, their mental health deteriorate, and one of them a week cries at work.”

But this is not to say dads have been immune to the stresses. Far from it. Some 13% of working fathers reported having shared childcare equally with their partners or having done most if not all the childcare during lockdowns. This left more than two thirds of them concerned about their mental health.

So what can be done to reset the balance and protect families?

For many of those who responded to the survey, the answer to relieving this strain lies in greater flexible working for both sexes.
One of the key issues for families during this pandemic has been the fact that many employers have struggled to keep pace with the changing need for flexible working approaches, for both men and women alike and through all levels of seniority.

Offering working women greater flexibility has clear benefits in helping them to progress their careers alongside childcare commitments, but affording the same opportunities to fathers and creating working environments where a truly shared approach to childcare provision is championed benefits both parents – improving fathers’ work-life balance, but also helping to reset perceptions of women and alleviating some of the pressure that has been allowed to build up on them. The need for this was becoming apparent pre-pandemic, but exploded as soon as schools shut.

One mum explains: “Many private sector employers have not supported families sufficiently by failing to ensure that fathers feel able to step away from their computers and take a more active role in parenting. The pressure this has then put on women has been unprecedented. The assumption is that we are able to just drop or manage our workload (we aren’t) whilst simultaneously finding the capacity to teach and care for our families without support.”

And the Dads in the Inloco community agree. One laments: “It is still socially unacceptable in the workplace for men to be off or to be more involved with childcare – this must change.”

While another insists: “Give men equal access to parental care then equality will take a leap forward. Until both men and women have the same status to access the same benefits, you won’t get equality because the system forces families to make this decision.”

But for one dad who has been afforded some flexibility, changes made during the depths of the pandemic to cope with unprecedented challenges can now be used to set a new standard, once some form of normality returns.
“Amongst my friends and family, the pandemic has shown that primary carer and childcare situations can be shared by both parents and there is no real excuse for that not to be the case after the pandemic. There is a stereotype that we still cling to which must change and hopefully the pandemic has shown that it can change.”

More flexible futures

Fridman is also adamant that things will change for parents going forwards. “We are in the midst of a flexible-working revolution,” she insists. “We will never return to the way it was (not just for working parents but for all working people).

”She explains that “whilst the pandemic has certainly not helped women, I do believe that it has amplified the flexible working agenda for both men and women, and that is going to, in time, improve and level the playing field.”

And the early signs of this change in mindset can already be seen in plans for the country’s post-Covid reopening. In a poll by Flexible Working People, 60% of firms confirmed they will adopt a hybrid approach to the post-Covid world, mixing office time with remote working. “People won’t be pushed back into ‘bums on seats’ 9-5pm,” says Fridman.

Parents have undoubtedly been through the wringer over the last 12months. But if anything positive can come from this harsh lived experience, it is surely that it now has the potential to set the tone for changes needed to rightfully escalate the equality agenda and ensure parents are better supported going forwards.

And this is crucial if we are also to help shape the views that the next generation have of women in society and the workplace, and the opportunities that they will be able to enjoy in the future.

Kat Spybey, Guest Writer

Notes on the study

The ‘Impact of Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on UK families survey’ responses were gathered online between 11th and 23rd February, 2021.  272 responses were received, of which 80.5% were Mums, 13.8% Dads and 5.8% Other. 80.9% of respondents worked on a full or part time basis. During the third lockdown 47.6% of survey respondents were undertaking most, if not all of the caring responsibilities themselves, 16.7% of respondents shared caring responsibilities equally with their partner and 32% of respondents were able to access full time school/early years care.
Inloco is a new childcare community, founded and run by two mums who believe there is a better way to approach childcare. Inloco communities connect friends, families and childcarers – and let your family thrive. Find out more.