International Women’s Day is taking place this year again in a world struggling to cope with a pandemic. We have learnt many things about what is happening to women in the home, at work and in the interaction between the two spheres, and we can learn something from them that might (to quote Gloria Steinem) not only make us angry, but ultimately set us free.
In the home we have seen during lockdowns families with young children doing the equivalent of a working week in childcare, with women doing the majority (more than 60%) of the additional childcare. Men have substantially increased the childcare and housework they do compared with before the crisis, but they are also specialising in specific types of childcare activities (home schooling and play) and housework (grocery shopping), shunning some of the others (personal care, laundry, cleaning etc). Nevertheless, we have seen more equal distributions of overall responsibilities in many households and new ways of working, notably increased home working for those priviledged enough to work in high skills sectors, which commentators say may lead to longer-term changes in gender norms.
However, we also know that the additional burden of childcare and housework has created tensions within households. We are also witnessing large negative effects of the pandemic and social isolation on the mental health of adults and children, as well as increased family instability and increased domestic violence. Mothers of young children and those who are most vulnerable economically, including those who are less skilled, and single mothers who are unable to share the burden of childcare, have seen the biggest shocks to their economic and mental wellbeing.
In the world of work, altough the health outcomes from the virus have been disproportionately felt by men, women are more likely than men to work in healthcare or in industries where work cannot be done from home, as well as sectors that have seen the largest impacts from lock downs. Among couples where both parents are now working from home, mothers are more likely to experience decreased productivity from reconcyling work and care and more likely to be interrupted while working than fathers.
Working from home has had advantages in reducing the financial and time burden of commuting, and a more human aspect of work has been forced to emerge as work is in the home, but home is in the work too and inequalities of access to private work spaces with decent connection and equipment to work, as well as protected time to do so have become more visible to co-workers and managers. Equally, some of the interaction inequalities (for example who dominates in meetings) have also become harder to ignore.
However, many other inequalities have emerged, starting from those between workers who can be online and on demand all the time and those who do not, and a reduced awareness amongst managers of workers’ true workloads which has led to inadvertently overburdening some employees at the expense of others who have been able to put more time into career-anhancing activities. For all, it seems that working from home has meant working more. In the UK it is reported that many employees are putting in an extra 2 hrs per day and even longer in the US, and the softwares used to monitor employees are adding pressure to be constantly online. The EU is asking its member states to implement policies that support work-life balance and the right to disconnect.
Women are more likely to be working in sectors and tasks where the workload has increased (pupils, patients and customers all need more support and the shift from in person teaching and care has significantly increased preparation and support time). Unless employers are ready to recognise this in career progression and support women to ensure they do not pay massive personal and financial penalties, the career and wellbeing impacts will likely last for years, much in the same way parenthood penalties take decades-long tolls on women’s careers worlwide.
When it comes to leadership, the picture has been interesting: on the one hand we have witnessed the usual bias towards seeing leadership in a crisis as requiring male attributes (all that war rethoric has not helped), and on the other the hard evidence that the leaders of the countries that have best managed the crisis are women has also been clearly under everyone’s eyes. This notwithstanding, countries with more regressive gender norms have stubbornly kept women out of the experts pool on committees to deal with the emergency, missing out on talent and on the diversity of perspectives that typically makes teams more innovative and able to deal with crises.
So here’s a call to government and employers on International Women’s Day: acknowledge and lessen the burden of the crisis on women, support their lives and careers and support and maintain men’s greater involvement in care as a way not just to improve the lot of women, but to positively transform our collective lives and workplaces. And whilst you do it, bring women to the table to find solutions that work for everyone.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Some links so you know I have not been making stuff up: