Before, now, and after: The pandemic impact on working mothers

Mother’s Day was observed in the UK on Sunday, but one wonders: have working mothers in Britain many reasons to celebrate?

In late January, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said in the House of Commons: “We owe mums everywhere an enormous debt of thanks for doing the enormously difficult job of juggling childcare and work at this tricky time.” His comment backfired as many found picturing working mothers as jugglers and main child-carers so old-fashioned. But is it? Let us look at some key statistics and at what has changed for working mothers during the COVID-19 period.

The pre-pandemic period

The UK saw a sharp rise in the proportion of women in employment, from 57% in 1975 to a record high of 78% in 2017. Women no longer tended to leave the labour market after they had their first child and stayed in paid work in the following years. The proportion of working-age mothers increased from 50% in 1975 to 72% in 2015, particularly for single mothers and mothers of pre-school and primary-school-age children*.

Despite this, in 2019 only 64% of women were in full-time employment, compared to 89% of men. Also, women-owned enterprises represent less than 25% of business in the UK’s five most productive sectors and the ratio of female entrepreneurs to male entrepreneurs is 0.46**. Female-led businesses are only 44% of the size of male-led businesses on average, in terms of their contribution to the economy. Women still did most of the childcare work: they spent on average six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week; therefore, they relied on paid childcare much more. In the UK, parents pay the highest childcare costs as a proportion of average wages amongst all parents in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The post-pandemic period

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on labour markets around the globe. In the UK, the full impact on jobs is yet to be seen in full due to the government job retention schemes. However, data from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme suggests that more women’s jobs are at risk than men’s.

Between March 2020 and November 2020, a total of 46.4 million jobs have been furloughed in the UK, and as of the end of November 2020 3.9 million were still on furlough: 52% were women’s jobs, despite women making up 48% of the workforce**. According to the International Labour Organisation, the nature of the pandemic and the distribution of female and male workers across industries has placed women’s jobs at higher risk. Too many women are working in lower paid, contract-intensive sectors that are now facing maximum disruptions (such as accommodation and food, services and arts, entertainment and recreation). Globally, 40% of all employed women (nearly 510 million) are employed in these hard hit-sectors, compared to 37% of employed men.

Also, some women have been more affected than others. Mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since the start of the first lockdown and are also more likely to have been furloughed*. The Fawcett Society also found that 35% of working mothers have lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare support during the pandemic.

In addition, COVID-19 has exacerbated the already unequal load of unpaid care and domestic work taken up by women, who spend 31.5 hours per week on childcare, which is 7.7 more hours per week than men: almost an extra full-time job***.

Meanwhile, the childcare sector has been pushed into a funding crisis by the lockdowns. A quarter of childcare providers were in significant deficit during the first lockdown. Research by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) found that during lockdown 41% of working mothers with children under 10 were struggling to find childcare that will allow them to work. 43% of women they surveyed said they have had to combine working at home and childcare, against only 29% of their male partners. As a result, one in six women have had to reduce their working hours to accommodate childcare. Working mothers in the UK have experienced a 22% fall in paid work hours per day compared to 16% for fathers between February and May 2020.

This trend/burden, if persistent, could push women out of the workforce and cause a permanent fall in female labour force participation rate and a widening of the gender pay gap. So what can be done?

What do we learn from this experience?

1. Women need to become more ‘key’ to the economy:

· They should be encouraged to move away from demand-sensitive sectors towards the higher-growth sectors of the economy (for instance digitalisation, AI, renewable energies, green economy etc.) via retraining and upskilling programmes.

· Women should be encouraged to take full-time employment at least at an age where they are not primary carers (for children or elderlies).

· The UK Government and financial institutions should continue supporting female business initiatives and funding female entrepreneurs and female-led start-ups.

2. Employers need to understand the female workforce’s needs:

· Employers should implement (financial and non-financial) work retention schemes for women when the pandemic is over.

· Employers should work towards an ‘institutionalisation’ of flexible working: the pandemic has taught us how well most workers can adapt to a hybrid model of home and workplace flexibility (adequately supported).

3. Adequate family support to women can be societal success:

· Mainstream media, education and public institutions should help reinforce the shifts in ‘family culture’ that have taken place during the lockdowns. The time fathers spent caring for their children has increased slowly by about 15-20 minutes each day, per decade, over the last 50 years. The pandemic has accelerated this process: during the first lockdown, while mothers were doing 1.5 hours more childcare and home schooling than fathers, fathers doubled the time they spent on childcare from four hours a day before the pandemic to eight hours during lockdown**.

Working women should make use of the difficult pandemic experience to continue asking more for what they are worth.

*According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS)

**According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

***According to an IPSOS poll fielded in October 2020 from 16 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and United Kingdom.

By Dr Miriam Marra

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