Women across the UK have issued a “desperate cry for help”, with more than half believing that women’s equality is in danger of going back to the 1970s at work, at home and in society, according to an exclusive survey.
After a year that has seen women more likely to be furloughed, lose their jobs, carry the burden of home schooling and domestic drudgery, women are increasingly fearful about their futures, with almost half of those surveyed in a Mumsnet poll for International Women’s Day expecting gender equality to go into reverse over the next few years.
As children return to school in England, the poll reveals that women have borne the burden of closures, with 70% of mothers with male partners doing all or most of the home schooling. Three-quarters of women said that during lockdown it was easier for their partner to work uninterrupted (echoing findings from the Institute of Fiscal Studies), one in five mothers in paid work said they had reduced their working hours to cope with increased childcare, and more than a third said their careers had been affected in a way that was not true for their partner.
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“This survey paints a fairly depressing picture of how gender inequality has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with women really struggling to cope,” said Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts.
“What’s needed is a proper women’s strategy, with specific policies to redress the inequality that’s been triggered by Covid, or we’re at real risk of heading right back to the 1970s with regard to women’s economic power.”
One mother whose partner could not work from home said she had been fully responsible for home schooling, despite also working. “I have never before felt so absolutely annoyed at being a woman,” she said. Another said she had been a full-time mother, employee and teacher, writing: “I am broken and am unable to do my best in any of the three full-time jobs I now seem to hold.”
The poll also exposes the UK’s domestic care gap, with 73% of respondents saying they did all or most of the laundry, while 62% did the food shopping and 61% did all or most of the cleaning and tidying up. The only domestic areas approaching parity were children’s bath and bedtimes and pet care, while 51% said their partner was the most likely to empty the bins.
There were some glimmers of hope, with 63% of respondents saying their family unit was closer as a result of the pandemic. While 69% said their partner had spent more time with the children, 43% said their partner had developed a greater understanding of the demands of childcare, and 24% of the partners of those polled were more likely to take on domestic tasks.
After a year of carrying more of the burden at home, women are “on the edge, and they don’t know what to do”, said Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. An “SOS line” opened by the group to give women a chance to leave voicemails about their experience had been inundated with women articulating “desperate cries for help”, she said.
In audio extracts from the recordings, one woman is heard simply saying: “Please, please make it stop, I just can’t keep going”, while another says, “It’s depressing and frightening, to be honest.” An edited version of the voicemails ends with a woman saying: “No, I’m sorry, Mummy is done, absolutely done.”
Brearley said Pregnant Then Screwed had given 30,000 women some form of legal advice during the pandemic. “Women are asking how they pay their bills, how can they look after a baby entirely on their own, how can they hold down a job and home-school – they are saying they just can’t cope any more,” she said.
Felicia Willow, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, accused the government of ignoring mounting evidence of a crisis in gender equality, and called for a drastic change of approach.
“It’s like we’re on this freeway heading in the wrong direction, and we keep missing the exits,” she said. “We urgently need investment in childcare, we need employers reporting on sex-disaggregated redundancies data – we need a really serious focus on women. But without women in the room, without women in positions of power, it is just not going to happen.”
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