Women have been hit hard by the economic fallout of COVID-19 and taking on a greater share of domestic work and childcare. Visits to the website of the domestic violence charity Refuge have seen a phenomenal rise of 950%. More women than men work in low-paid sectors such as care and leisure – industries hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
It’s clear that the financial crisis will be felt by women for a long time to come. Thousands of job losses are expected to occur when the furloughing scheme finishes at the end of October, despite Rishi Sunak’s emergency jobs scheme. And research suggests that women - in particular working mothers - may be disproportionately affected by redundancies.
The number of redundancies in the UK has accelerated at the fastest pace since the financial crisis, despite more than half of furloughed workers returning to their jobs after the lifting of lockdown. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said 156,000 people were made redundant in the three months to July. This is an increase of 48,000 from the three months to the end of May, and the sharpest quarterly rise since 2009.
And although many people across different industries and sectors are likely to be hit by job losses, local lockdowns and further childcare closures may mean working mothers are first in the firing line.
Earlier this year, a survey of 19,950 mothers and pregnant women revealed the true impact of childcare closures on women. The data, collated by the charity Pregnant then Screwed, revealed that 15% of mothers either have been made redundant or expect to be made redundant before the end of 2020 - and of those, a shocking 46% have said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy.
A huge 72% of mothers said they had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, and 65% of mothers who have been furloughed said a lack of childcare was the reason. Of the women surveyed, 81% said they need childcare to be able to work, but half didn’t have it to be able to do their job.
Self-employed mothers have had a particularly rough year, with 74% having had their earning potential reduced because of a lack of access to childcare and 44% of self-employed mothers have had to give up their childcare space during the coronavirus crisis.
“Women who have many other responsibilities outside of work, including childcare, have traditionally always been first to be fired or made redundant due to the restrictions this puts on their working hours and the flexibility needed to be able to do such duties as school runs, appointments and errands,” says Serena Fordham from HER Business Revolution, an organisation that offers training, coaching, events and networking to women in business.
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While a select few may have embraced a “tradwife” life under lockdown, the reality is that without adequate childcare facilities, working mothers have had little option but to revert to an antiquated 1950s family unit. Even before the pandemic, women were doing the lion’s share of the childcare and unpaid domestic labour.
But now, women are looking after children for an average of 10.3 hours a day – 2.3 hours more than fathers – and doing housework for 1.7 more hours than fathers. They are also doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers, risking lasting harm to their careers in the future.
Unsurprisingly, their ability to work has suffered as a consequence of being pulled in too many different directions. And with further job losses likely to come, women may find themselves being unfairly punished for a situation outside of their control.
“Single mums with no partner or family to support them are most impacted by this because they struggle most to find flexible employment in the first place,” Fordham adds. “Then when job cuts are required mums are seen as ‘less committed’ to their work due to having to leave early or take breaks and time off from work due to childcare responsibilities, making them the first choice to leave the company.
“In fact, I spoke to a single mum yesterday who had faced this situation early in COVID-19 lockdown,” she says. “Her children being off school meant she had no one to turn to with home-schooling and childcare meaning she asked for a more flexible working pattern, then a week later when job cuts were on the table her P45 was one of the first to be sent out.”
However, employers should be warned that letting caring responsibilities impact their judgement during redundancy consultations or selections could be leave them open to claims of sex discrimination.
“We need to see provisions in place to support mothers who are struggling with childcare through no fault of their own,” Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed said in a statement.
“We need the government to open its eyes to the gender imbalance that COVID-19 is exacerbating and we need to help pregnant women and mums to be treated on merit, not on how many kids they have. The time to change this is now.”