This article explores the inequality of working women in the pandemic, particularly looking at the care sector, and how both working mothers and private carers have felt the effects. It also outlines the core issues working women have faced during a pandemic.
When the pandemic hit the world last year, it was a struggle for many as nearly all aspects of life were transformed and warped. This was especially felt through the way we worked. Remote working became the norm for many, while key workers incorporated masks, plastic dividers, and gloves into their daily routine. Then there was those who had to leave their jobs or shut down businesses – with 2.6 million claiming out of work benefits in April 2021.
It is important to acknowledge that the pandemic’s effects were generally unequal, but also the nuances of this inequality. The diverse experiences of women who worked during the pandemic range far and wide, reflecting our society’s struggle with the concept of a working women.
With just over a third of working mothers losing their work hours to childcare, we see yet another barrier to the realisation of women’s equal employment. Before the pandemic, there was a 72.4% female employment rate – one of the highest. This had reduced to 71.8% by October 2020. The Institute of Fiscal studies reported that mothers were 1.5x more likely to have either lost their jobs, or quit them, since the first lockdown began. While job loss figures are important, it’s helpful to explore the factors which compounded struggles for working women during the pandemic.
Remote working has been a mixed bag. In the US, an analysis from McKinsey showed mothers working remotely reported lower levels of mental wellbeing (41%) compared to fathers (71%). However, the Resolution Foundation found that more mothers to young children were in work during the pandemic compared with previous years (2017/19). This shows a diverse picture – while remote working is not the healthiest form for some, it provides opportunities and flexibility for others.
Childcare and housework have always caused issues for working women – as they are disproportionately the primary caregivers. Even with remote working becoming a more common way of life, women still average 15hrs more of unpaid care work than men, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The same study, conducted in the US and Europe, found that almost half of respondents saw their work performance decreasing. The issue lies in the increased household work created by the pandemic, which still follows traditional patterns of nuclear family living (male breadwinner and female carer, which arguably is simply not sustainable in modern life. Whilst it might be cute to see babies in the corner of serious work Zoom meetings, the reality for many families is that the mother is expected to sacrifice her work/earnings to look after the children.
This is a dangerous path as it threatens to reduce women’s participation and equality efforts long term. For those established in careers, life earnings could take a hit, due to reduced chances for promotion, profile raising and networking. The response of women? Many are considering leaving the labour market or reducing their hours.
It is imperative to ensure we remain on track for attaining the UN’s fifth sustainable development goal – achieve gender equality and empower all women by 2030. There is a massive effort required to recover from the pandemic and to complete this by 2030, efforts promoting gender equality need to double. This involves measures to make work more accessible to women whilst also strengthening the care sector.
Not everyone worked remotely during the pandemic though – with in person workers ranging from industries like healthcare to retail. Community hubs, often run at local schools, stayed open for childcare purposes, looking after those children who could not stay at home for various reasons. This particularly helped key workers, who could not work from home and also look after their children. Demographically, key workers are more likely to be female in the UK (60%). Certain sectors such as healthcare are staffed predominantly by women – with 80% of workers being women. Whilst these figures are positive in relation to increasing female participation in the labour force, these jobs came with a great risk during the pandemic, from increased risk of infection, stressful working conditions and often increased overtime. The issue for many has been childcare – key workers are more likely to have young and school-aged children than other workers. While community hubs were useful, the broader care available such as informal grandparent care was affected by the pandemic. This had a large impact due to the odd hours and irregular shifts worked by key workers. The vast majority lacked having spouses or other family available to care for their children, due to occupations and absences, further restricting them.
Inevitably, the private care sector itself was affected by the pandemic. Across the pond, one in six childcare provider jobs were lost in the pandemic, as reported by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. This was mirrored in the UK, where social distancing measures and falling demand for childcare created a tough financial situation. Pre-pandemic, 1.4m children accessed childcare, compared to fewer than 250,000 during it. The picture does not look good for the sector, which already faced troubles before, with low pay, social status and high work demand.
Childcare workers themselves are then left in precarious situations. 90% of US childcare workers are female, most of whom are also immigrants and non-white. These groups are more likely to be poor, and so feel the hit of the pandemic on their industry quite hard. In the UK, only 50% of the childcare providers responding to this survey said they would likely reopen after the pandemic. Around ¾ of the providers who said they would close permanently cited financial difficulties. The government has come under criticism for saying that local authorities can redirect funding for childcare providers. This decision did not show a recognition for the industry’s importance within the economy – leaving many to struggle and close. But the pandemic has also toughened the situation for parents affording childcare: many are unable to pay for the rising expense.
As we can see, the picture is quite bleak. With rising costs associated with coronavirus, lack of demand and frail government support, the industry is struggling.This doesn’t only affect direct employees, but also clients who often rely on the support provided to concentrate on their careers and excel. The interlink between many female workers and the childcare sector is a career-making one at times, and without the mutual support, both will be worse off.
In some countries, measures have been taken to mitigate this, but the pandemic’s effects remain far reaching, and ever exposing of weak institutions. In comparison to Britain, Australia made childcare free for all parents during the first three months of the pandemic. This policy decision recognised the quality and significance of these services and was welcomed warmly by parents. However, the subsidy ended as the pandemic continued, with expense being cited as the reason why full public childcare wasn’t viable. These types of measures offer a modicum of support, but do not do much to structurally change the system to make it fairer, more efficient, and equal. Unsustainable fixes will not improve the system that is fast unravelling under pressure. Childcare is “the fourth emergency service” facing a crisis of its own.
We can see that the Coronavirus pandemic has been brutally unkind, but also that our social structures are not fit for purpose. The disproportionate impact on women in terms of childcare provision, work sacrifices and income has been starkly unfair. Compounded by the statistic of 90% of single parent families being headed by women, there is a clear exigency for a robust system of childcare and more recognition for the role it plays in society.
The prime working age for women is aged 25-54. In 1975, 57% of women aged as such were in employment. In 2017, it reached a ‘record high’ of 78%. Let’s make sure this continues – whether it’s women employed in the vital childcare sector itself, or women who rely on childcare services to work.
I’m an International Relations student at the University of Glasgow, due to graduate in 2024. I’m interested in foreign policy, with a particular interest in women’s issues both inside the field and in FP’s effects. As well as writing for FemLegal, I curate the newsletter for the Food and Body society at my university. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, travelling and a good hot chocolate.