The Primal Scream

The Primal Scream

The Effect Of Coronavirus Lockdowns On Working Mothers

It will not go unnoticed that this year’s International Women’s Day falls on 8 March, the same day children in England go back to school.  Although many will be apprehensive, for working parents, especially mothers, having their children back in full-time education will end the difficult combination of homeschooling, childcare, and working.

Although the pressures stemming from schools closing has caused stress for both mothers and fathers, it is impossible to deny the evidence that lockdowns have more adversely affected the former, especially in relation to work.

In May 2020, a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education asked 3,500 families of opposite-gender parents what their experiences of homeworking and homeschooling were like.

The replies confirmed the pressure working women were under.  The study showed:

  • for every hour of uninterrupted work mothers manage, fathers achieve three
  • mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs during the Covid-19 crisis
  • mothers were 47% more likely to have quit their position and 14% more likely to have been furloughed.

These findings have been confirmed by similar studies by the Boston Consulting Group and a survey by the University of Melbourne.

In the EU, women earn an average 16% less an hour than men, while the figure rises to 18% in the US, and is substantially higher in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, according to data from the World Economic Forum. Women are also more likely to work part-time, typically due to existing caring responsibilities.  Therefore, it is not surprising that when a dual-income couple needs one person to step away from work to homeschool and care for children, the female spouse/partner is more likely to resign from her job.

Lucy Kraftman, a Research Economist at IFS, said: 

“Mothers are doing, on average, more childcare and more housework than fathers who have the same work arrangements, be that not working, working from home or working outside the home. The only set of households where we see mothers and fathers sharing childcare and housework equally are those in which both parents were previously working but the father has now stopped working for pay while the mother is still in paid work. However, mothers in these households are doing paid work during an average of five hours a day in addition to doing the same amount of domestic work as their partner. The vast increase in the amount of childcare that mothers are doing under lockdown, which many are juggling alongside paid work, is likely to put a strain on their well-being.”

The United Nations (UN) has also published a report in the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on women’s careers and finances.

“As women take on greater care demands at home, their jobs will also be disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs. Such impacts risk rolling back the already fragile gains made in female labor force participation, limiting women’s ability to support themselves and their families, especially for female-headed households. In many countries, the first round of layoffs has been particularly acute in the services sector, including retail, hospitality and tourism, where women are overrepresented.”

The UN paper stated the Ebola outbreak in West Africa significantly reduced women’s economic and livelihood activities, increasing poverty rates, and exacerbating food insecurity.  Reports show similar problems occurring in the UK when single mothers and/or their children are forced to self-isolate with no support or ability to generate an income.

Could the Coronavirus pandemic have a positive effect on women’s careers?

Despite the gloomy papers and statistics, the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in some positive changes in women’s lives.  For years, women have argued that the culture of presenteeism, negatively affects mothers.  Now that homeworking has been normalised and travelling to clients or suppliers has been replaced by Zoom meetings, the pressure to be ‘the last to leave the office’ has greatly reduced.  And it follows that the decrease in presenteeism may lead to more women taking on senior, higher paying roles because they feel confident that by working from home, they can balance work and family needs.

This theory is supported by Ghazala Azmat, Professor of Economics, Sciences Po; Research Associate, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE who, after analysing the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on presenteeism concluded:

“In the longer run, however, this crisis might actually help to reduce gender inequality. Over this period, many firms have invested a great deal in internal reorganisation because of the need to accommodate for working from home. While this reorganisation is likely to have come at a cost, by targeting the organisations’ structure in such a way that tasks are performed in a satisfactory way from home, it can make it less costly for those holding a unique job to not be present in the workplace. By changing the infrastructure in such a way that it reduces the penalty for an unpredictable absence (because of say, caring for a sick child), firms could thus inadvertently help to reduce the associated gender disparities it generates.”

Final words

The UN has asked world leaders to implement “gender-responsive economic and social policies and to place women’s economic lives at the heart of their pandemic response and recovery plans.”  To ensure women’s progress in terms of work and earning power do not regress, the UK government must take steps to understand the full impact the pandemic has had on women and swiftly take steps to redress negative developments.