In recent years, there have been significant improvements in tackling gender equality in the workplace. Gender equality movements have worked to transform the archaic notion of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners – and to astounding success too, with the gender pay gap falling to 17.3% in 2019, and seeing the highest percentage of women in executive positions across the world in the same year. But with the covid-19 crisis, the work of gender equality movements are at stake.
The covid-19 pandemic has challenged us all, but for women in particular, the struggle to balance work and home life without the support of child-minders or grandparents on hand has presented a whole new realm of problems as women’s careers have been put under immense pressure throughout the pandemic. The difficulty of balancing a job with new responsibilities of home-schooling has caused women’s careers to be disproportionately impacted by covid-19.
The primary reason for this disproportionate impact is the lack of child-care provisions. As the cogs in the global economic machine begin to turn again, businesses are calling their workers back while schools and other child-care options remain closed. For women, returning to work cannot be an option while there are not adequate child-care options in place.
For decades, maternity leave has been a source of great controversy for women. Interrupting their career paths by taking time out to look after their children has meant that women have fallen severely behind in the workplace, capping their salaries and halting their prospects for promotion. While women have made significant progress in the workplace in recent years, the future of gender equality after the pandemic is causing concern amongst experts.
Joan Williams, founder of the Centre for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, has voiced her opinion on the issue, suggesting that it is a “tremendous engine of increased gender inequality” to call people back to work without adequate childcare arrangements. Equally, the United Nations recently published a report on the impact of covid-19 on women, stating that the pandemic is “deepening pre-existing inequalities” and will “result in a prolonged dip in women’s incomes and labour force participation”.
“Things are often still not equal in the household, I have had an element of organisation to handle that (my husband) doesn’t have to worry about”, said a working mother who I spoke to anonymously. In light of the pandemic, couples have been forced to make decisions as to who stays at home and who continues to work with such a decision threatening to throw many women back to the 1950s: stationed in the home while their husbands go to work.
What are countries doing to tackle this issue?
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, working from home became the nation’s new ‘normal’, but for many jobs, the option of remote working was not so easy. Teachers, nurses, care-workers and supermarket workers are all amongst the roles which have carried us through the covid-19 crisis; all of which are predominantly female roles. The issues arise when such – predominantly female – ‘key workers’ are called back to work by government and business leaders – predominantly male – leaving many women unable to return to work without child-care provisions.
In Italy, where just over 50% of women work under a legal employment contract, the situation seems much worse than in other European countries. A ‘quick-fix’ solution of 600 euros per month was issued to parents for the first two months of lockdown, but this has not served to fix the wider issue on a long-term basis.
While countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy are struggling to find a ‘solution’ to this Feminist conundrum, France seem to be leading the way with state child-care from the age of three months and mandatory education for children in their early years. Interviewing working mothers in France in The Atlantic, one mother said, “all of it is on me, there is no real share of the burden in our couple” and another is worried about a “violent return of women to the home”.
In tackling the issue, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been heavily praised for her effective response to the virus outbreak, keeping case numbers just over 1,000 and maintaining less than 50 deaths. While the social and economic impact of covid-19 and its subsequent lock-down will be damaging to the efforts of gender equality movements throughout recent years, the success of female leaders across the globe could lead to a positive outcome with changes to traditional working hours.
A more equal future?
On the flipside, life after lockdown is looking hopeful for some, who are suggesting that due to the rise in working from home, flexible working hours will become a thing of the future. Flexible working will in turn allow for more women to pursue their professional careers, whilst balancing child-care needs alongside it.
The role of fathers is also set to change with more emphasis on the importance of paternity leave and encouraging men to take on more care-giving roles in the home. A 2014 study used a cross-national analysis of four economically developed countries and found that families with more paternal involvement resulted in a more equitable environment later on, regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status.
Speaking anonymously to a mother of two, she spoke to me about the difficulties of juggling her full-time office job with the new job of teaching her primary-aged children. “I didn’t want my children falling behind because I could not prioritise their learning”, an issue shared by many women balancing home-schooling with working from home. Looking to the future, she thinks that working parents “both men and women, should be celebrated and acknowledged for their dedication under pressure, it can be relentless and many of us have had no choice but to just get on with it”.
It goes without saying that the efforts of parents across the globe have been nothing short of astounding. Balancing new-born babies, times tables and home-schooling schedules alongside full-time jobs and demanding companies is not an easy task, and many have struggled. With a pandemic comes change, and while it is unknown what the social impact of covid-19 will be, it is certain to shake up the system, be it positively or negatively.
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