Alison O'Connor: Covid has reduced women to a 1950s gender stereotype

Alison O'Connor asks why women have been the ones to pick up most, if not all, of the slack when it comes to childcare, home schooling and keeping the household running during Covid
Alison O'Connor: Covid has reduced women to a 1950s gender stereotype

Even mothers who have not been economically affected by the pandemic will say the pressure has been huge trying to keep on top of working, schooling, the laundry, cooking and keeping the kids on an even keel, while mostly failing to find any spare personal moments at all. 

It’s been described as the shadow pandemic — the way in which the lives of women have been so disproportionately affected by Covid, all the way from the boardroom to the kitchen table. Those effects stretch from the near-impossible juggling of work and home schooling, to worldwide increases in domestic abuse and child marriages.

At its most basic level, it is that women will tell you anecdotally that a conversation about Seesaw would have many fathers assume the subject under discussion is a piece of playground equipment, rather than the remote learning technology favoured by Irish primary schools.

In a world where female equality has made great strides in some areas, but in far too many others remains patchy, if not seemingly hopeless, Covid has been a sucker punch to the cause. The pandemic has clearly affected everyone in some way, regardless of gender. However, women have been the ones to pick up most, if not all, of the slack when it comes to childcare, home schooling and keeping the household running. A year on, many women are stunned to find themselves reduced to a 1950s gender stereotype.

There is hardly a woman you’d encounter who wouldn’t benefit from a call to a phone line set up by  The New York Times called the Primal Scream Line. Callers are told the floor is theirs to “yell, laugh, cry or vent for a solid minute”. Even mothers who have not been economically affected by the virus will say the pressure has been huge trying to keep on top of working, schooling, the laundry, cooking and keeping the kids on an even keel, while mostly failing to find any spare personal moments at all. Then there is the eternal knowledge that you have to get up tomorrow and do exactly the same thing all over again.

Even before the pandemic, according to the UN, it was estimated that women were doing about 75% of the 16bn hours of unpaid work that are done each day around the world. UN deputy secretary-general of the Amina Mohammed has said that Covid risks setting women’s rights back by decades.

Last month Kamala Harris, the US vice president, said the 2.5m women who have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic constituted a “national emergency”. Of that number, black mothers, Hispanic mothers and single mothers are among the hardest hit. It is estimated that the US is back to 1980s levels of women in the workforce. Women have either left work or cut back on their hours.

For so many women, the move back into the workforce was built around children starting school. Childcare arrangements were often a combination of formal and informal, but the pandemic has upended everything. Even if both parents worked full time and had properly structured full-time childcare, this option has simply disappeared — all in the blink of an eye. 

It’s extraordinary how traditional role playing immediately re-emerged with such force. The male partner, often with the higher-paid job, continued his career from an upstairs office or bedroom, while the woman took on the mantle of childcare and homeschooling, either giving up outside work entirely or trying to do it on the hoof.

A recent survey in the UK by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) also found the burden for juggling work and care is falling predominantly on mothers. Of the more than 50,000 who responded to the survey, 25% were worried they would lose their jobs, through being singled out for redundancy, sacked or denied hours. A quarter were using annual leave to manage their childcare, but 18% had been forced to reduce their working hours and around 7% were taking unpaid leave from work and receiving no income.

It has come at women from all sides. In the EU, 76% of healthcare workers are female, which means that women in that profession have had unbelievable pressure piled on them in the last year, especially those who have children.

The most recent figures from the CSO show that, in the last quarter of 2020, total part-time employment was down by 58,000 from a year earlier. Remarkably, of that number, nearly 43,000 were women. The jobs lost were in hotels, restaurants, shops and in places such as cinemas and museums.

In February, in its ongoing surveys showing the social impact of Covid, specifically the impact of school closures, the CSO reported over 70% of respondents who are employed and had a child in primary school said the closure of schools since Christmas had had an impact on their work pattern. Women were more likely to report an impact, 74%, compared to just over 64% of men.

Women were also more likely to have taken unpaid leave — just over 9% compared to only 0.4% of men — and to have changed to working from home (almost 17% compared to just over 9% of men). 

Delving further into the CSO figures, it’s interesting to note that a survey last April found that, of those who were then new to working from home, almost half of the women said they would like to return to their place of work after restrictions were lifted, compared to less than one in three men. Where would those figures stand today?

CSO statistician Claire Burke said at the time that the difference may be partly explained by the fact that a previous survey had found more women than men were caring for a dependent family member or friend because of the Covid crisis, that women were more likely to report childcare issues related to Covid, and women were finding it more difficult to work from home because of family being around.

However, it is interesting to note that there were not wild variations in these figures between the genders. For instance, 11% of women said it was more difficult to work from home because of family being around compared to 9% of men.

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O'Connor said recently that restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic have exposed the deep structural inequality of care in our society, where women in Ireland continue to provide the vast majority of it. She said that the CSO data indicates that women accounted for 94% of those looking after home or family in 2019. 

“As a society when we move into recovery phase, we urgently need to address this inequality, which requires public investment in care and a redistribution of care responsibilities between women and men,” she said. 

There is some comfort in the plethora of coverage on this issue, but policy responses thus far have been non-existent really. If we bring our minds back to the budget last October — generous in so many ways in relation to Covid — there was not one mention of childcare.

Our Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has no doubt been influenced in its ongoing deliberations by how women have been affected by Covid. It will hopefully make meaningful recommendations on issues such as flexibility in work and parental leave. Assembly chair Dr Catherine Day has speculated that there may be recommendations for “big changes”.

What has happened over the past year has resulted in making women’s time seem to be worth far less, while reinforcing the hunter-gatherer role of the male. Big changes are badly needed. The Government might begin with an exact assessment of the impact of Covid on Irish women and their careers.

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