Covid winds clock back on gender roles

On International Women’s Day, practice owner Lucy Cohen explores the effect the pandemic has had on gender imbalance.

8th Mar 2021
Co-founder Mazuma
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To say that 2020 was a strange year is an understatement. A global pandemic, lockdowns, home schooling, clapping at our doorsteps - if someone had predicted all of that in 2018 we’d have thought them a banana short of a good banana bread.

Alongside the backdrop of a once-in-a-generation shift in our lives came the inevitable conspiracy theories. From 5G spreading Covid to Bill Gates injecting us with microchips - right through to the more sinister resurgence of racism as different ethnic groups were blamed for the crisis. Many people found the idea that a catastrophe like Covid could just happen with no rhyme nor reason, completely incomprehensible, and so searched for reason in the chaos.

Of course there is absolutely no credible evidence to support those conspiracy theories. But what is interesting is that there is evidence to support another theory - one that it seems the internet message boards and social media have completely missed. 

Covid has wound the clock back on gender roles.

If you’re willing to buy into the idea that Covid was exploited to control a population, is it much of a stretch to think that the government might use it to reinstate traditional gender roles in society?

Dubious? One of their own adverts advising the public to stay at home managed to make it out into the world without a single person in the process questioning its use of stereotypical gender roles. Was this some form of subliminal message or a clumsy oversight? It only got pulled after a public outcry.

Alright, I don’t actually believe that Covid has been used to deliberately try to repress women again. Mainly because I’m really not convinced that our government has the wherewithal to orchestrate something like that.

The facts speak for themselves though. Covid has seen women being forced into stereotyped gender work at an alarming rate. How many years of progress have been compromised during the pandemic?

"Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year," says UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia.

So how did we end up here? And what has made the previous status quo so fragile for women?

Gender imbalance in furlough

Let’s start off with one of the headlines of the pandemic - being furloughed.

Where it was possible to link the data across the UK, 1.92m females were furloughed at 31 December 2020 compared with 1.88m males. And provisional estimates show the number of females furloughed at 31 January 2021 increased to 2.32m where for males that increase was to 2.18m.

Those numbers are concerning enough on their own. Dig a little deeper and the picture doesn’t get any prettier.

In August AccountingWEB reported on an academic study that looked at the gender imbalance in the furlough scheme.

The report found that women and those on low incomes were less likely to have their furlough wage topped up to 100% and that working mothers were 10% more likely to volunteer to be furloughed than fathers.

Given the effect the scheme has had on mothers, the economists called for greater flexibility in how the scheme is withdrawn across occupations and in response to childcare disruption. 

We cannot also overlook the sobering fact that the economists concluded that “there is a real risk that mothers could be forced out of the labour market if the furloughing scheme ends without viable childcare options being available”.

Gender imbalance in homeschooling

It’s well documented that globally women do 75% of the unpaid work - and this figure remains roughly the same in the UK even where working hours and incomes are almost equal in a heterosexual partnership. That unpaid work can encompass childcare, housework, grocery shopping and caring responsibilities. ONS analysis also shows that on average men enjoy around five hours more leisure time per week than women. 

So throw in the necessity to homeschool children and what happened?

A report carried out by the London School of Economics looked into the effect of this on couples.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the report found that women are more likely to deal with homeschooling, childcare and chores around the house even if they are juggling this with working at the same time. The conclusion suggests that the closure of schools and childcare providers during lockdown has compounded “pre-existing disparities” between how childcare is split between couples.

A look into the world of academia would suggest this assessment holds true. The very gendered impact of the pandemic in this case resulted in men’s submissions to academic journals increasing by almost 50%, where in contrast, articles submitted by women dropped as they picked up the additional domestic duties during the pandemic.

To the amusement of social media, the impact was noted even by those more controversial figures associated with our government. While Michael Gove said that he hadn’t really noticed the absence of their cleaner in their home, his wife Sarah Vine snapped back in her column by pointing out that she’d taken on that work. When even Sarah Vine is bemoaning a gender imbalance then maybe it really is time to take a second look at ourselves!

Given the data on domestic chores and mental load that existed before the pandemic, could more have been done to try to address this issue? Or is representation at the top of government such that this wasn’t a consideration? 

It’s easy to cite that things just moved too quickly to deal with the repercussions of the measures that were taken. What is more concerning is that this shows a stark example of a society and government that don’t consider the needs of all genders in policy making. It’s simply not good enough to forget about the needs of half the population during a crisis.

Lone parents

In the UK, around 86% of lone parents are women. The impact of the pandemic on those households has been felt deeply.

In her candid account of homeschooling, Samantha Mitcham of SJCM Accountancy sheds light on a day that starts at 6am and ends at 1.30am having only been able to start her “real work” at 8:30pm that evening.

Given that all of this data is readily available, what did the government think would happen to working mothers who suddenly had to deal with homeschooling on top of their careers? Where was the package of support for them? 

What next?

As the vaccine rolls out, one of the most important parts of unlocking the country is to make sure that 25 years of progress in gender equality are not undone. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic into a world that allows all genders to thrive equally. So how do we do it?

Speak up: As businesses assess which staff will return from furlough and which will sadly not, make sure that factors such as childcare commitments or requests for more flexible working are not used to discriminate against female employees. If you are a manager, check your own subconscious biases. And if you are a colleague then become an ally to the women who you work with.

Step up: What’s the division of unpaid work in your household? Who does what? Now is the time to put any ego or embarrassment aside and honestly assess whether everyone is pulling their weight. Remember that it isn’t  a case of waiting to be asked to do something either. The mental load of having to project manage a partner is beautifully illustrated by French comic artist Emma here

Level up: While the pandemic has put undue strain on the lives of many women, the way that they have multi-tasked and still performed throughout has been admirable. Those skills are highly transferable and an asset to most organisations. If you are in the position of recruiting, look for those candidates who have continued to perform well in a crisis whilst spinning multiple plates. Then create a working environment that allows them to thrive. This year has taught us all exactly how unnecessary a 9 to 5 schedule and an office building are for productivity. Harness that new knowledge and bring in the Covid heroes who can help supercharge your team.

Science and society

The speed at which the scientific community developed a vaccine and then the NHS delivered it is, to coin a phrase, unprecedented. Such great strides in progress are cause for celebration and must not be overshadowed by a failure to address areas where our progress teeters on a knife edge. 

The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of the progress we have made in gender equality. It’s time to make a concerted effort to create a more stable and less reversible equality - for the good of everyone.

Replies (1)

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Dermot Hamblin
By LangdonHamblin
10th Mar 2021 09:54

Well written article, with all of your points backed up with figures.

Special mention to Samantha Mitcham, and any other lone parent, that is a massive achievement.

Well done Lucy.

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