As working mums perform more childcare and face increased job insecurity, there are fears Covid-19 has undone decades of advancement. But could the pandemic be a catalyst for progress? Shine Co-Founder Cal discusses with BBC Worklife…

This article was written by Maddy Savage and originally appeared on the BBC Worklife website, here >

Pregnant and with two children under the age of six, Anna Xavier was recently so stressed about juggling work and life she threatened to move out of the family home and find her own apartment. “I am now 33 weeks, huge and super tired – housework has been a struggle,” says the entrepreneur, who quit a corporate career with a cosmetics brand to start a baby-equipment business in Stockholm a year ago.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the Nordics, Xavier’s husband, who works for a company that produces protective equipment, has joined her in working from home. The couple also took their children out of daycare (which has largely remained open in Sweden) for several months, due to worries about how the coronavirus could affect expectant mothers.

But the situation created “huge amounts of frustration”, as Xavier, who splits household bills equally with her partner, shouldered the bulk of the childcare, cooking and cleaning, while he spent most of his days in video meetings. “We agreed that his job did take priority because he was helping the Swedish government and hospitals get equipment that could potentially save lives,” she explains. At home, “his job was at the end of the day to pack the dishwasher and stuff like that, which he didn’t always do,” says Xavier.

The couple have since sent their children back to daycare and hired a cleaner to avoid further arguments. But by being the primary caregiver during the peak of the pandemic, 44-year-old Xavier has fallen behind on her own business goals. “I have not been able to devote so much time to it… I still feel a little bit under pressure because I’d wanted to get as much done as possible before the baby arrives,” she says.

Unpaid labour at home

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were high hopes that the global shift to home-working could mean childcare and chores would be divided more equally within couples. But numerous studies of working parents’ lives during Covid-19 have shown that Xavier’s experience is far from unique: a disproportionate share of the burden is still falling on women. 

Researchers from Boston Consulting Group, which surveyed more than 3,000 people in the US and Europe, found that working women currently spend an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labour than men. In Australia, provisional results of a survey by the University of Melbourne suggest that in households with children, parents are putting in an extra six hours a day of care and supervision, with women taking on more than two-thirds of the extra time.

Covid-19 has the potential to be a disaster for equality

Caroline Whaley

This pattern is occurring regardless of income. Research by scientists from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich during March and April showed that working women in the UK, Germany and the US did more childcare and home-schooling across all wage brackets, compared to men with similar earnings. The difference was amplified in couples where the man worked outside the household during the pandemic.

That’s been the experience of Tina Rehana, a 28-year-old dance teacher from Manchester. Her partner is unable to work from home, so she has been the primary caregiver for her two young children throughout the Covid-19 outbreak.

“I literally cannot do a thing with them both around 24/7… I tried one private lesson on Zoom and my kids kept running in and out, arguing,” she says. “I have absolutely no income from my dance school because it is just impossible.” 

‘Family systems are regressing’

Despite lockdowns easing around the world, many campaigners believe there will be a long-term impact on women’s work and home lives as a result of the coronavirus. A recent United Nations study even warned that the pandemic could dilute decades of advancement on gender equality.

“Covid-19 has the potential to be a disaster for equality,” agrees Caroline Whaley, Co-Founder of Global consultancy firm Shine, which works to improve gender balance in companies. She believes “family systems are regressing” to more traditional norms due to the closure of schools, day-care centres and summer camps. “The ability of many dual-earner couples to both work because someone else is looking after their children is dissolving,” she says.

Women, argues Whaley, are “more frequently the ones to give up their jobs” due to having lower salaries or earning expectations. 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 ForumWomen are also more likely to work part-time, typically due to existing childcare or other family responsibilities which, says Whaley, has also fed into many couples’ decisions for mothers, rather than fathers, to step back during Covid-19.

Other industry observers stress that even among full-time high-earning women who have so far maintained their careers while caring for children in the pandemic, many are increasingly concluding that the juggling act is unsustainable. “It’s a trend we’re seeing now, not three months ago,” says Allyson Zimmermann, a Zurich-based executive director for Catalyst, a non-profit that works to improve corporate workplaces for women. “One [major client] shared that she’s seen senior women leaving because they just can’t do it anymore… I am hearing more women are also going into part time.”

Zimmermann works with businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and believes the pattern has emerged in tandem with the global realisation that Covid-19 will likely disrupt our lives for at least another year, unless a vaccine becomes widely available. “It is because [the pandemic] is going to continue – most likely – and there’s not a quick fix.” Despite strong anecdotal evidence of a trend toward senior women quitting their jobs, she says there is little hard international comparative data. But her observations from the business world are already playing out in other fields.

In April, Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, caused a stir when she tweeted that women were submitting fewer papers during the coronavirus crisis. “If the disparities we’ve witnessed in submissions to the journal aren’t just a statistical blip, then the obvious conclusion is that women bear the brunt of these disruptions,” she recently told US intellectual site The New Republic. Megan Frederickson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, later looked into the data from scientific publications and confirmed that there had been a marked drop in female productivity compared to March and April last year.

A slump in the number of women running for public office is another concern. Ruth McGowan, author of the book Get Elected and a campaigner for increased gender equality in politics, has recently spoken about a drop in interest from female candidates ahead of local elections in Australia.

“A lot of women are looking at it and they’re facing economic insecurity and more demands on their home lives,” she told Australian broadcaster ABC last month. “Not to mention worries about going out and campaigning where you can’t go to public meetings, you can’t stand outside supermarkets, you’ve got to be super savvy to run an online campaign. A lot of them are just going: Stuff it.”

Existing inequalities

Many women, meanwhile, have stopped working during Covid-19 through no fault of their own. Since they are over-represented in insecure, hourly employment and in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic (such as hospitality, leisure, retail and tourism), female workers have consequently lost their jobs or been furloughed at a higher rate than men.

In the US, 11.5m women lost their jobs between February and May, compared to 9m men, according to research by the Pew Research Center. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that British mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently become unemployed during the pandemic.

For some women, the coronavirus has also exacerbated other structural inequalities linked to factors such as such as ethnicity, class or disability. The IFS found that black Britons, for example, were less likely than all other ethnic groups to have a job that allowed them to work from home (one possible factor that may have may have contributed to the increased risk of catching and dying from Covid-19 among this group). People under the age of 25, single parents and those with lower levels of education had a higher risk of working for sectors shut down during the UK lockdown.

“I’m very exhausted,” says Sharmika Dockery, 25, a single parent living in London with her seven-year-old son. After spending every weekday home-schooling, she works for around three hours an evening on her start-up Beyond Strength, which develops community projects for parents who have children with disabilities. “Before Covid I was applying and pitching for investments and working on my social enterprise during the day when my son was at school,” she explains. “It’s been a struggle to try and get the business to the next level with everything closing down.”

Dockery has managed to pivot her business to focus on a digital platform. But cancelled events, meetings and networking opportunities mean her only income is her own disability benefits (she experiences chronic pain since undergoing an emergency caesarean section) to pay the bills. Picking up another job would be too challenging, Dockery says, both due to the need to care for her son and the unpredictable nature of her condition. “My health has been very up and down… I can end up bed bound for a few days, hobbling around.”

Campaign groups such as Pregnant then Screwed have also highlighted additional challenges women on maternity leave faced during or in the lead-up to the crisis. Self-employed mothers, for example, are losing out because financial support packages for self-employed workers are often based on average profits over several years, without accounting for periods of maternity leave. New mothers seeking to return to work are impacted by a lack of clarity over the future availability of childcare, sparking petitions in countries including AustraliaIreland and the UK to extend state-funded parental leave.

Caroline Whaley, at Global consultancy firm Shine, warns that some women’s lifetime earnings will never recover from the prolonged coronavirus crisis. “If you take a career break or are furloughed, your skills may get stale. So will your contacts, making it harder to get back to where you left off,” she argues. “If you’re made redundant and face unemployment, research shows that it’s much harder to get back on track if you’re out of a job for more than a couple of months.” Add in that women start to experience age discrimination from their early 40s, says Whaley, and “all this adds up to a perfect storm setting women’s equality back”.

Getting back on track?

Depressing as this might seem, there are nonetheless glimmers of hope that the pandemic may yet prove to be a catalyst for change. Although women are still doing the lion’s share of housework and childcare, there is evidence suggesting that men, at least in the western world, have upped their game since Covid-19 hit.

Unpublished research from academics at three Canadian universities found that although most families reported little change in how chores were divided, a substantial number said that things had become more equally split. More than 40% of fathers said they were cooking more, while around 30% reported that they had increased the amount of time they spent on laundry and cleaning. Their partners agreed, although on average they gave slightly lower estimates of how much things had improved. Academic studies from the Netherlandsthe US and Germany offer similar findings, while survey company Pulse found that almost two-thirds of men wanted to keep working from home, with increased family time cited as their top reason.

“It’s not a huge change, but it is something,” says the University of Toronto’s Melissa Milkie, who co-authored the Canadian study. She believes her team’s research is proof that increasing “actual physical presence” can play a key role in how active fathers are in the household. The absence of commuting time, increased opportunities to interact with children and, for some, shorter working hours, unemployment or furlough during the pandemic may have been “important factors” during Covid-19, says Milkie. “There are just more hours when the child is there… So, in that sense, it makes some sense that they’re doing more than in the past.”

It’s an opinion shared by 39-year-old Roger Dowley from Dublin, who works for a multinational tech company and is the father of two toddlers. His company gave him the chance to work a four-day week during Covid-19, and he reflects that household chores are “in many ways easier to get done now that I’m home more”.

His wife, Una Morrison, a senior brand manager for a global drinks business, recently decided to use up some of the couple’s unpaid parental leave (a legal entitlement in Ireland) to help ease the burden of childcare during the pandemic. But the couple say the decision was based on timing rather than traditional gender roles, since she was between major projects while he had a heavy ongoing workload.

“We have agreed that if another batch of parental leave is needed, that he would take it,” says Morrison, who is concerned about day-cares remaining closed in Ireland. “Now that he’s seen how it worked, I hope he will.” Dowley admits he’s worried he might find it a challenge, but confirms that he’s “all open” to time off with the kids. “I’d have no problem asking [my] work, and they’ve been great with me so far… In terms of workload, being honest, it would be there before I leave and there after I leave, if you get me, and I’m sure the company can survive without me for a while!”

Milkie is hopeful that Covid-19 experiences will encourage more couples like Morrison and Dowley to consider gender-balanced childcare solutions in the future. “It is likely that the experience of doing more may portend optimism; this is true when men take paternity leave – they tend to become more involved from that experience.” But she suggests change will likely also depend on future employment rates among women, and how accommodating companies are when it comes to offering longer-term solutions for parents to work flexibly or share leave.

New conversations

Caroline Whaley of Shine is among those feeling cautiously positive about opportunities for businesses to harness lessons from Covid-19 to improve working environments in ways that can boost gender equality.

“One very obvious solution is flexibility, a notion that was not backed by many businesses pre-pandemic, which has now become key,” she says. “If done right, flexible working will be a game-changer for women’s careers.” Whaley says that for many women, not having to commute during the pandemic has given them more options for how to structure their days, which can help them “boost productivity while maintaining a good work-life blend”.

But she argues that business leaders need to do more to create a culture in which increased flexibility and remote working opportunities can thrive in the long run. “Don’t just say it’s okay to be flexible; actively model that behaviour and make it okay for people to take time off, extend deadlines so that there’s longer to complete work.”

In Zurich, Allyson Zimmermann also believes “there is potential for a massive change across the board” in the corporate landscape. But she advises against firms creating “blanket rules” for employees, arguing that Covid-19 has forced us all to think more about people’s personal circumstances and what they need in order to work effectively. While some may be coping with childcare demands, others may be living alone, looking after older family members, or managing long-distance relationships, which all have their own unique set of challenges. “Everyone has their own experiences,” says Zimmerman. “We have to get curious and ask questions and challenge assumptions of what the ‘home’ looks like.”

Other campaigners, however, are concerned that progress might not be as speedy as optimists hope, especially for women in roles outside the corporate world and those who may be experiencing additional entrenched social inequities connected to factors such as class or ethnic background.

Harriet Williams, who works as a consultant raising awareness of the challenges young parents in the UK face, believes any discussions within the business community need to go hand in hand with greater government efforts to shape more equitable labour markets. “There has always been a penalty on fathers in the home and a penalty for mothers in the workplace,” she says. 

Williams is calling for employment protection laws for those on zero-hour or very flexible contracts, and expanding parental leave opportunities for men as well as women. But, in the meantime, the increased level of debate surrounding existing inequalities is at the very least, she argues, an important first step. “There are a lot of conversations around the family now… It’s been quite positive to feel like these conversations are important and people feel really pushed to hear from different demographics.”

Back in Stockholm, pregnant entrepreneur Anna Xavier says her partner has started to become “more willing” to take on extra household chores. “I think the ‘new normal’ will be more partners and more husbands helping. People will be working more at home, and by being more at home it provides the perfect opportunity to do more and get things done,” says Xavier. 

One ongoing challenge, she says, is that partners can often have different perceptions of how urgent chores might be. “For [my husband], it’s fine to wait another day to pack the dishwasher. It doesn’t matter if the kitchen is a mess. But then I can’t really cook if the kitchen is a mess, because there isn’t much space.”

She believes there’s therefore also a need for ongoing discussions – both within households and in society more generally – about what constitutes a fair share of the load. “If you cut the grass once a week, you can’t compare that to cooking every day.”