This month, the UK’s Women and Equalities Select Committee published its findings. Among its twenty key recommendations was a stark statement: that the government is currently at risk of “turning the clock back” on gender equality as it relates to the labor market. Existing inequalities — for pregnant women, new mothers, self-employed women, women claiming state benefits, and women working in professional childcare roles — have been made drastically wider by the pandemic.
On the face of it, this surprised me slightly. For many years, when my children were small and I had a traditional office job an hour’s drive away — a role that gave me no option to work from home or to work flexible hours — I would have been completely certain that if my employers had been forced to allow me to work from home, putting the requisite technology in place to allow that to happen, I would have been more productive.
I used to long for more flexibility and a home-working option. So did many of my colleagues. But — crucially — we longed for that while the schools and kindergartens were still open. None of us imagined working from home at the same time as being teachers for our children and doing all of the childcare. Why would we?
Yet that is what Covid-19 has forced upon many of us. A study in January by the TUC found that when the UK government closed the schools in the latest lockdown, over 70% of women requested furlough from their employers in order to care for and teach their children, and were turned down. Anxiety levels for women — with mothers around the country trying to do their day jobs at the same time as managing their children’s education — soared to an all-time high as a result.
It is unarguably women who are suffering the most here. If nothing else, the pandemic has thrown that particular inequality into the starkest relief. For starters, only 7% of the respondents to the TUC study were men. So although the proportion of men who were refused childcare-based furlough was very similar to that of the proportion of women who were refused it, that was not representative, because the men were not the ones asking.
In a traditional family setup, with a man and a woman and children in a household, when the Covid-19 restrictions kicked in last year and we were all asked to work and school our children from home it seems that men across the country decided collectively that this new way of life somehow didn’t apply to them. They might be working from home, sure, and they might be parents, of course, but — the kids themselves? The kids, surely, were the woman’s job. Let the women sort that out.
It’s troubling, to say the least. The Select Committee recognizes this and makes many recommendations in its report to try to ensure that the current “passive approach” to equality might be redressed going forward, with a specific focus on correcting the gender balance in any plans for economic recovery. For example, rather than the “Build build build” approach — creating jobs for more men than women, due to the nature of the construction industry — the government could focus on re-training and financial support for regrowth in the more female-dominated industries such as the beauty sector.
These are excellent recommendations, although I am of course cynical as to how carefully the government will listen to them. But I don’t think that what the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed in terms of gendered approaches to the work/life balance should be a problem just for employers and the government to correct.
Who are these men, these men that automatically assume their job is more important, that the mother is the primary parent and that the mother should be doing any teaching? Apparently, it’s most men. Most fathers. It turns out that in a society where successive rounds of discrimination, maternity, and parental legislation have attempted to ensure that women are given at least the semblance of a fair shot, the moment there is any disruption to the general status quo, men step back and let women bear the brunt. Again.
I do understand the systems that mean it’s not always as easy for men to take up the reins of childcare. I do understand that in many families the women are the ones who have elected to prioritize motherhood over career progression while children are small; I did this myself, not for my husband’s sake but for mine because I wanted to spend lots of time with my babies. I get that this can mean a father’s income is bigger, more fundamental to the family. There are many factors in play.
But the stats — in the UK at least — speak for themselves anyway. We women are the ones making the compromises and we are the ones suffering emotionally, mentally, and financially as a result.
It’s not just governments and employers that need to do better as we try to clamber out of the pandemic-based economic downturn (although we need their help as well, definitely, and I hope against cynical hope that the recommendations will get some traction). But also, it’s fathers and husbands. It’s men.