HOW are working women with children getting on during lockdown?

Here are some comments from a few I know.

“I get up at 6am to work and carry on after my son is in bed.” (Single mum of primary school child.)

“My husband earns more and we have to protect his job more than mine.” (Mother of three.)

“I’ve had days when I’m so busy I haven’t been out of the house all day. Sometimes I just want to scream.” (Married mum of two.)

Shutting down professional childcare and schooling was always likely to impact heavily on women. Doing conference calls while spreading jam on toast and making appreciative faces at your child’s art work, now feels like an essential professional skill.

Even so, research on the impact of the pandemic is revealing a gender gap in work and childcare that is starting to cause real concern.

The headlines are these. Women are more likely than men to have been made redundant, furloughed or to have quit work since February, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) based on opposite-gender couples with children in England.

Compared to working fathers, working mothers are more likely to have their work hours interrupted by warring siblings or bored toddlers, which, the IFS notes, probably makes mothers less productive and could impact their career prospects by making them seem less able to manage their workload.

There’s more. Working mothers are doing more childcare than working dads and not just because they are more likely to be working part-time. Even among men and women who aren’t working for money, the women are doing markedly more childcare and housework than the men.

What about couples where the woman is the higher earner? There, too, women are doing more childcare and have fewer uninterrupted work hours than their male partners.

There are other impacts. Women are significantly more likely than men to be assisting friends and neighbours during the pandemic, according to an Ipsos MORI survey for the Fawcett Society.

Women are less likely to die of Covid-19 than men. However the emotional impact of Covid is hitting them harder, with women struggling more to stay positive.

The implications of all this are huge, especially where the loss of women’s work is concerned. We have now let go of the happily-ever-after narrative of March, in which everyone was going to skip back into their jobs as soon as lockdown ended. The Government’s Job Retention Scheme is masking the true picture, with almost half of employers who have furloughed staff expecting to make redundancies when the scheme ends. Some women who are now furloughed will lose their jobs and those who have given up work or cut their hours may find it hard to get new work or more hours. With schools returning part-time, women will continue carrying a burden of unpaid work. It would be profoundly unsurprising if the stubborn pay gap widened and increasing poverty affected women disproportionately.

There is the potential here, in short, not just for hardship but for the (admittedly slow) progress towards gender equality to reverse.

Both the UK and Scottish governments must start planning now to support women and those with caring responsibilities so those groups don’t bear the brunt of the economic downturn.

And that won’t be easy. This situation is not one caused by deliberate discrimination, though unconscious sexist attitudes persist in many homes. Much of it is to do with baked-in gender inequalities. Men tend to earn more than women so many couples have decided that if someone’s going to work less or give up their job, then it had better be the woman.

Women are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work, work that has been badly hit by the crisis: a third of women report their workplace has been shut compared to a quarter of men.

And single parents are more likely to be women and are particularly vulnerable to having to give up work.

Of course, stepping back from work during this time of crisis can be a thoroughly positive choice. Many parents have a profound sense of being needed at the moment. Being a carer, educator and rock to their children at an uncertain time, is a role they value hugely. And God knows, it’s crucial work.

Unfortunately though, because this critical job is unpaid and historically undervalued, then a parent pays for making this choice. Someone who is not working is not building up pension contributions; they are not saving. This need not be a problem in households where couples pool their resources, but even there, the person who isn’t doing paid work is still vulnerable to divorce, illness or the death of their partner.

If a woman who has stepped back for a while goes back to work, she may find that her prospects and pay rate have suffered.

So what to do? It starts with child care. The Scottish Government has had to delay the August introduction of 1,140 hours of free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds but it must be brought forward as soon as possible, when it’s safe to do so, as part of the recovery plan.

Nurseries struggling to stay afloat may need further government support.

Extra support may also be needed in sectors where women tend to be over-represented, like caring and leisure.

And both governments see the need for a green recovery. Women should be at the centre of that, opening up roles in which they have been underrepresented.

The governments in Edinburgh and London have been highly interventionist for the last three months and now is not the time to stop.

There are some positives in all of this. The polling reveals that, though working dads aren’t doing as much childcare as women, they are doing twice as much as before lockdown, which may well persist long after the crisis ends.

Even so, in this pandemic, if the research is correct, children confined to the home will be seeing mum do the lioness’s share of childcare and housework even where she has a demanding job. That could be a setback for generational efforts to equalise men’s and women’s roles.

And that’s a depressing thought. It would be a bitter outcome if Covid-19 claimed narrowing gender inequalities as a victim.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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