A Storm Is Coming, And It’s Going To Set Gender Equality Back 40 years

Gender equality storm

In many households coronavirus lockdown has revealed cracks. Whose job gets prioritised when someone needs to take care of children? If there’s a meltdown while you’re both on conference calls, who steps out to deal with it? Your kid needs help with a school task, who gets interrupted first? Who ignores the overflowing laundry basket and dishes in the sink because they “just want to relax”? One or both of you might have lost a job, been furloughed or worry that’s it coming. We haven’t seen an economic downturn of this magnitude in living memory. And it’s going to get worse. We’re seeing the beginnings of a storm brewing that will set gender equality back by decades with the collapse of the systems and services that have enabled two-worker households to exist. Someone is going to take the hit, and indicators tell us it’s not going to be men.

Our System Isn’t Designed To Be Equal

Despite some hopeful signs of change over the past few decades, we still exist in a system that is designed to accommodate children only on the assumption of a breadwinner and a primary caregiver. This model provides for the possibility that the primary caregiver could also do paid work. But contributing to the household financially is not this person’s primary function. This means that if there is a need for a parent to step out of work due to a disruption – a sick child, for example – that is the primary caregiver’s responsibility. This, of course, impacts that person’s career prospects and their gender determines how they’re viewed in the workplace. See the mummy-penalty and daddy-bonus. For social, cultural and structural reasons – many of them discriminatory albeit deeply embedded – these roles are also gendered.

Statistically, breadwinners are men, and primary caregivers are women. Though even when that’s not factually the case, we’re still not seen in equal terms. From The Atlantic (Source): “In one study of families in which wives earned at least 80 percent of the total household income, researchers found that in just 38 percent of the couples did both the husband and the wife say that “breadwinner” was an appropriate label for the woman. It wasn’t just the husbands who were skeptical of the term—wives were actually less likely to think of themselves as breadwinners than were their husbands.” That’s just where we are now – before widespread loss of access to childcare threatens to set gender equality back decades.

Lockdown Is Making It Worse: An Example From France

Marlène Schiappa, the French Secretary of State for Equality Between Men and Women commissioned a poll in April by the Harris Interactive Institute to examine how lockdown was impacting households. It found – unsurprisingly – that 58% of women believe they are spending more time that their spouse on housework and picking up most of the workload created by the lockdown. For example, meals are mostly prepared by women – in 63% of families. This is work that has also multiplied from typically one meal per day before lockdown to three meals during lockdown. Aside from meal preparation there is also the work of planning, shopping, setting the table, cleaning up after meals. That’s in addition to childcare and – let’s not forget – paid work.

Teleworking is not a form of childcare

Marlene Schiappa talks about having chaired the Maman travaille (or “Mum Works”) network for ten years. One of the challenges was having to make clear to employers that teleworking (working from home) is not a form of childcare. Now that more people have been forced to work from home, perhaps this is something that will be clearer in the future. Even then, men and women’s experiences have not been the same.

Schiappa has highlighted the high risk of parental burnout – that will disproportionately impact women. She says, “It is completely illusory to think that under current conditions, we could work 100% and at the same time take care of our children 100% by teaching them the same things as at school. It is not materially and temporally possible. If we do not lower the bar on our requirements, the cases of parental burn-out are likely to multiply.”

Two-worker Households Are The Norm

Increasingly, two worker households are the norm. In the US, in 46% of two parent households both parents work full time, and both parents are employed in around three quarters of households. In Europe, in 68.3% of couple households with children, both parents work. There is even evidence that men’s health suffers when they are the primary breadwinner. This suggests that there may be a public health interest in enabling two-parent households to work (not to mention the potential mental and physical health impacts for women).

But it’s not always viable for them to do so. According to the UK’s National Childbirth Trust, 29% of women find that returning to work after having children isn’t financially worthwhile due to the cost of childcare. Women also continue to do the majority of household work. According to the Modern Families Index, “The gender gap in housework has been shrinking as well, but mostly because mothers are doing less housework than they used to… this was not necessarily because fathers were doing more; fathers actually did less non-routine housework in 2015 than in 2001.”

We Continue To Assume The Nuclear Family Works – It Doesn’t

In most two-parent households both parents work, despite in some cases doing so at a financial loss due to the high cost of childcare. Women continue to do the bulk of the housework and childcare in addition to paid work. What this amounts to in practice, is that the Nuclear Family – the idea that a single family unit with two adults and one or more children can be self-sufficient – is under-resourced. Conventional wisdom tells us “it takes a village”. Unfortunately many households do not have access to a village. And supporters that are available tend to be equally overburdened. So actually what it takes is resources to share the burden of workload.

Taking care of a child can require 14 or more hours of work per day. And often more hours during the night. As Marlene Schiappa says, “It is not materially and temporally possible” to do this, while also being focused and productive for 8 hours of paid work per day. And yet that is what is currently expected. Especially of women.

Coronavirus has made it worse

Coronavirus is making this abundantly clear to anyone who cares to pay attention. Unsurprisingly, many governments aren’t. For example, Boris Johnson announced at 7pm on Sunday 10 May that workers who cannot work from home should return to work the following day. In the same announcement he noted that schools will not be re-opened yet. What, one could reasonably ask, is a couple who are both unable to work from home and have no access to childcare, to do given 12 hours notice and pressure from employers to return to work or risk losing their job? Johnson specifically mentioned manufacturing and construction industries in the announcement, and perhaps his administration assumes that only men work in such industries? Even for households where that’s true, how is a mother with children to care for to work from home when her partner is leaving to return to work?

The Storm: Childcare Is An Essential Service

A flaw in our current system, that is already hitting some but is soon to bite on a far grander scale, is that currently childcare is a business. We saw some of the issues this creates when nurseries, which were supposed to stay open for essential workers children only – couldn’t afford to. Businesses don’t operate when it’s not financially viable. The government’s expectation that a business respond to non-commercial drivers is illogical. Unsurprisingly this attitude seems only to apply to female-dominated, poorly paid, and undervalued industries. Like child and elder care work.

There have been many reports (examples here and here) of the challenges facing parents who are still being asked to pay childcare fees despite nurseries being closed due to lockdown. Many parents are already aware that if they don’t pay, they risk their nursery going out of business. This means that one of them will be unable to return to work when the lockdown lifts.

Fund Nurseries, Now

Lucy Powell, shadow education secretary, has already raised this with government. Powell published a letter to the education secretary asking for further support for nurseries to prevent them facing financial ruin. She wrote: “Without further support, this forced closure will produce an unprecedented threat to nurseries across the UK. The majority of nurseries will go out of business and this will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the entire economy as many workers will be without childcare.”

The challenge with nurseries going out of business is it will create a barrier to labour availability. That will be a gendered barrier that will see more women than men being penalised – as coronavirus job losses show. Already job losses and furloughed employees mean many can’t afford to continue paying fees. That means they lose their children’s spaces. Losing spaces means nurseries also lose government subsidies. Those subsidies alone are frequently insufficient for these businesses to stay afloat without parents paying fees. Nurseries can’t stay in business because they can’t pay their costs – which means more job losses for their employees.

How long does it take to get a nursery place?

Before lockdown, wait times to get a place in nursery for a child could be 8-18 months. That is likely to increase dramatically if many nurseries go out of business. And will delay return to the workforce of the hundreds of thousands of parents who cannot work as a result.

A likely bi-product of this will be an increase of already higher rates of women in casual and part time work or self-employment. Work that by it’s nature is less stable and typically lower paid. This sets women’s equality in the workplace and closing the gender pay-gap back by decades. Not that the government seems concerned, having cancelled pay-gap reporting requirements for employers in 2020.

Why Should Government Pay For Childcare?

Why indeed? A blunt question, but an important one to address. Children exist – we need them to exist. Because today’s children are tomorrow’s taxpayers (a reality that is starkly clear to a member of the sandwich generation). We also need children because the only way our economy grows is with workers. And we either make them ourselves (yes, children), or we import them (you know, immigrants – which Britain decided in 2016 it was squarely against).

Why aren’t nurseries considered essential services – like grocery shops, schools, hospitals, police, emergency services? Not essential services that need to remain open right now (except for essential workers children perhaps). Closing nurseries, like schools, is necessary to prevent spread of coronavirus.

But when it comes to restarting our economy, to getting back to work – how will this be possible if we have a constrained supply of workers because hundreds of thousands have lost access to childcare? According to the ONS, there are 6.2 million couple households with dependent children and 1.7 million single-parent families in the UK. That’s 14.1 million adults whose employment prospects may be affected by the loss of childcare facilities after lockdown.

Stimulus That Gets The Country Back To Work

The current government has talked a big game about investment and stimulus to keep our economy going. And now given the one-two punch of Brexit and coronavirus, we need effective investment more than ever. We must prioritise jobs and essential services that will restore our economy to proper functioning as quickly as possible. To do that, we need workers – and we need them unencumbered.

The most effective stimulus for the country once lockdown ends must be to build or buy nurseries. And preparations should begin immediately. Perhaps in the form of offering targeted loans to privately owned nurseries in exchange for equity. This can keep them afloat during lockdown and fund/expand them after lockdown lifts. To get through this recession and return to growth government should provide a free place at nursery or school for every child from the time their parents returns to work after parental leave. This will fully enable our workforce to return to work – as well as unleashing those for whom it wasn’t financially viable to work due to childcare costs.

Reimagining A Fairer System

Investment in nurseries has the added benefit of providing a geographically dispersed injection of investment across the country. Construction, maintenance or expansion of nurseries nation-wide will provide stimulus, jobs, and enable 7.9 million households to take up jobs that build our tax base. We can co-locate nurseries with schools to utilise existing premises and speed implementation. This will enable a smoother transition for school children into before and after school care. That is also critical to enabling parents to work full time. A capital works and jobs program would give us an immediate and dispersed injection of cash into our economy. But it would also provide the social good of education, care and socialisation for children that creates more equality, health and educational benefits for years to come.

It’s time we built a system that recognises that all adults should be free to work, regardless of gender. And the enabling them to do so is in all our economic interests.

And one last thing…

Oh, and enforce mandatory pay-gap reporting – coronavirus or not. Now more than ever, we need data on the gender pay gap. Because without drastic action from government, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Read about Mental Load, which is becoming a bigger problem now due to lockdown.

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