There’s no doubt about it, COVID-19 has deepened gender inequalities around the world. You’ll have seen the statistics by now, and perhaps even felt the effects yourself: women’s jobs are estimated to be 1.8 times more vulnerable as a result of the pandemic than men’s, with Black and Hispanic women affected at even higher rates in the United States.
As UN Women reports, there are many complex reasons for this disparity, not least the fact that women disproportionately work in industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic such as hospitality, retail, and the arts. But there’s also another major factor that will be all-too-familiar to working mothers from all economic backgrounds: unpaid labor.
The gender gap in unpaid labor has grown
Research has shown that since the start of the pandemic one in four women have considered quitting their job or reducing their hours compared to one in five men. In couples where both parents work, mothers are more than twice as likely as fathers to be taking on a minimum of 15 hours a week of extra household work than they were already doing before the pandemic—and, women were already doing more unpaid household work and care before the pandemic hit.
In February 2020, the International Labour Organization reported that most unpaid care work in the world is performed by women, with 606 million working-age women engaged in unpaid care work full-time, compared to 41 million men. As a major report on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality explains, “the demands of [unpaid care] have grown substantially during the pandemic. Women are on the front lines here; they do an average of 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning.”
When you recognize your life in the unpaid labor statistics
Like many other working mothers, I read these statistics with dismay, and felt a certain amount of shame and confusion as I recognized my own story in the global narrative that was unfolding in real-time around me.
When I quit my full-time job four years ago, I felt ready to embrace the freedom and flexibility of freelance work. I imagined I’d shape my working hours around my children, and achieve some kind of magical work-life balance. After five years of being the primary–sometimes sole–earner for our family, I was ready to pass the baton on to my husband and take a supporting role for a while. My goal was to earn enough money to help us pay the monthly bills that my husband’s paycheck didn’t quite cover, and to keep my career gently moving forwards while I had our second child, so that I wouldn’t develop too much of a career gap.
I imagined I’d shape my working hours around my children, and achieve some kind of magical work-life balance.
I soon learned, though, that even as a feminist with the most well-meaning of partners, it’s incredibly hard to maintain boundaries around “flexible” work—and this was before the added stresses of a pandemic and lockdowns. I could just about manage to keep moving my career forward while also being the main caregiver to the children and shouldering most of the household work when schools and daycares were open and babysitters and family were on hand to help back before COVID-19 (remember those golden days, back when many of us had some kind of “village” in place?).
The pandemic ripped that reality to shreds for so many women. How often in the past year have women wished they could just say “Sorry honey, I’m legally obligated to work right now–it’s your turn to watch the kids/do the meal-planning/drop round your dad’s medication/do the laundry…”? I know I have, and I haven’t even had to deal with the additional burdens Women of Color and single mothers have been dealing with.
If school is canceled with less than 24 hours notice, a kid gets sick, or your household has to self-isolate because of exposure to COVID-19, which adult is more likely to take time off work to be with the kids? Is it the parent who has a regular nine-to-five job with colleagues who expect them to be online (or in-person) and working, or the one who has flexible hours and was already fitting work in around school and daycare pick-up times? (We all know the answer, right?)
The uncomfortable reality of flexible work
When I posted about the “flexible work” conundrum on Instagram recently in the wake of the announcement of the latest school closures where I live here in the UK, my DMs were flooded with messages from women admitting they’ve found themselves in the same position.
We’re all wondering how we got here, despite having supportive partners; many of us are ashamed to admit that a choice we made, one that felt good at first, now feels so deeply frustrating. And, we’re the lucky ones: so many more women around the world have lost their jobs altogether, don’t have the option of staying safe at home with their children because they don’t have any financial safety net, or don’t have a safe home in which to shelter.
We’re all wondering how we got here, despite having supportive partners; many of us are ashamed to admit that a choice we made, one that felt good at first, now feels so deeply frustrating.
It feels un-feminist to admit that we suddenly find ourselves putting our work on hold or surreptitiously squeezing it into evenings and scraps of time throughout the day, while our partners keep going almost as if nothing has changed. It feels ungrateful to even mention it when so many other women around the world have it worse. Even so, I’ve found myself regularly daydreaming about having a “proper” job, being answerable to a boss so that I can protect my working time the same way my husband does, over the past year.
It feels un-feminist to admit that we suddenly find ourselves putting our work on hold or surreptitiously squeezing it into evenings and scraps of time throughout the day, while our partners keep going almost as if nothing has changed.
None of this is meant to deny the many potential advantages of flexible working, or to put working mothers off advocating for flexible working arrangements, including freelance work, if they feel this is the right path for them. And of course, it’s also important to note that flexible working may be the only way for a single mother to keep her job at the best of times. I do believe, though, that working mothers in dual-career couples need to go into flexible working arrangements with their eyes wide open to the hidden cost.
Men have to take part in flexible work too
Ultimately, when we encourage women to embrace flexible working but don’t encourage men to do the same, we’re going to run into big problems for gender equality: as People Management warned, “A ‘new normal’ where more male employees attend the office compared to their female counterparts can be detrimental. Women working from home can’t seize the opportunities of the informal water cooler chats that may lead to business or career development and networking. They won’t benefit from the everyday mentoring or coaching that comes with sharing an office. These issues can lead to a widening gender gap in terms of career progression.” In other words, flexible working can be really beneficial, especially for working and single parents—but only if men are also choosing this path.
If you’ve found yourself totally overwhelmed and wondering how you got here during this pandemic, you’re not alone, and no, there’s nothing wrong with you; this gender dynamic is playing out all around the world right now. Let’s hope that this crisis holds society’s feet to the fire and continues to prompt a much-needed discussion about the burden of unpaid care that so disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders. And perhaps most importantly, let’s hope that these discussions bring about new policies and best practices that can undo the damage this pandemic has wrecked on the lives and careers of working mothers.