It’s neither news nor controversial that the pandemic has been a disaster for women. Women disproportionately work in frontline roles most at risk and for women working from home the flexibility offered during lockdown led to longer hours of work to shoulder the burden of care. Incidents of domestic violence rose sharply. For many equality is going back to the 1970s.
In the meantime, as we edge back towards a new normal, work is unlikely to be moored around the office as before. With flexibility and remote working becoming a prominent feature of the future of work, there is a pressing need for business and policy to redress inequities embedded in greater home working or risk exacerbating long-entrenched gender disparities.
A gendered pandemic
The International Labour Organisation found that women across the world were disproportionately at risk of cuts in wages and reduction in employment and working hours in 2020. Women in the UK, in particular, are four percentage points more likely to have lost their jobs than men, a gap widening to 10 percentage points for families with small children, which is not explained by differences in education and types of work.
Mothers have been hit particularly hard. During lockdown women were taking on more than 60% of additional childcare and enjoying less uninterrupted working time irrespective of whether they were the better paid member of the couple. In fact, regardless of who earned more, mothers were more likely than fathers to do more housework and childcare, and have fewer uninterrupted hours of paid work. According to PwC’s women in work index “progress for women could be back at 2017 levels by the end of 2021.”
This set back in gender equality is not accidental but the result of the availability of care services, management practices and policy response to the pandemic.
The 1942 Beveridge report, the foundation of the British welfare state, assumed that care would be unpaid, domestic women’s work. This gap in support was evident well before the pandemic. In the UK, the average employment and hours of men barely changed after they became fathers, while the employment of women fell sharply from above 90% to below 75%, even for women that had higher wages than their male partners. Amongst the women who remained in paid work after childbirth, hours fell from around 40 to less than 30, and the wage gap widened by two percentage points every year, plateauing at 30% 15 years after childbirth.
Not all countries follow similar trends. In fact, countries with more robust systems of care and policy design that is mindful to its gendered consequences, such as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand, are consistent strong performers in terms of female participation rates. Such countries, with more resilient and stronger institutions also saw less unwinding of female employment during the pandemic compared to the UK or the US.
Moreover, unlike other countries with relatively weak institutions, the UK has not sought to strengthen them in light of the pandemic. While the Biden administration is pivoting towards significant investments in child and social care, termed as “essential infrastructure”, the UK has set priorities for recovery heavily skewed towards male-dominated sectors such as construction, infrastructure and tech.
As we recover, flexibility will be an essential characteristic of the new normal. Many hope increased flexibility will bring better work life balance, and work to correct for long-standing gender imbalances by lifting barriers that often forced women to choose between care and work. This seems overly optimistic. Even in a hyper flexible labour market the practices and office norms remain unchanged. In appraisals, the perfect employee still is someone delivering as if “unencumbered by any other problem other than their job”. As the pandemic demonstrated, all else equal, flexibility for those that take on a greater burden of responsibility at home, mean simply a reshuffling of tasks with the hours of work stretching far into the evening. In absence of change, flexibility for parents and, disproportionately so, women, risks only adding hours to the day damaging their wellbeing and hampering their progression.
A more equal future of work
So what can be done? Some good places to start include:
Change management practices to go further than flexibility. In a world where flexibility is a core part of the new normal, management should be accountable for the impact new ways of working have on the progress and wellbeing of parents and women.
Treat childcare like essential economic infrastructure. In the US, the Biden administration is treating childcare as critical infrastructure: as essential for getting to work as roads, comms and energy. But in the UK, childcare costs about a third of median incomes, amongst the most expensive in the OECD, resulting in parents too often relying on a precarious patchwork of formal and informal care.
Eligibility for childcare and parental leave should reflect the flexibility of the future of work. In the UK narrow definitions of what consist “eligible” forms of employment for parental leave, that do not include self-employment, are locking many out of the support that is available. Indicatively, nearly 50% of the women and 40% of men in the UK are not eligible for parental leave, third highest among its European peers.
“Use it or lose it” paternity leave. Even though sharing of leave is related to better outcomes for women and children, the UK has one of the least generous paternity leave policies in the OECD. Even in countries where paternity leave is better paid and can be flexibly shared between parents, take up by fathers is often low. The UK should learn from the “use it or lose it” scheme in Nordic countries or policies in Western Europe allocating bonus payments to households with more equal leave take-up. Schemes like these are known to reduce gender wage gaps.
These are some of the ideas we know could work in the UK. Until such policies aimed at targeting gendered inequities become embedded in the new normal, flexibility alone is more likely prove a burden rather than a benefit for women.