The COVID-19 lockdown has altered our society in so many ways in such a short period of time. Prior to the pandemic, it is estimated around 1.7 million people worked from home, however, this has now jumped to around 20 million; nearly one-third of the UK population. This comes with considerable advantages for the employee, including more time spent with the family and greater time to commit to personal endeavors. However, home-working does have its downsides, especially for mothers. A recent report entitled 'Parents, especially mothers, paying a heavy price for lockdown' by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education has concluded that mothers are more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs during the period of lockdown and that this may further increase the gender pay gap.
As we write this article, across the country there are millions of people caring for children and working simultaneously. For anyone currently in this situation, you will be all too familiar with the challenges of trying to balance countless tasks, including walking the dogs, cleaning the house, preparing meals, helping children through home or remote schooling, and if that was not enough, working. When we look back on this in the years to come, as we lie on a beach enjoying the sunshine, we will most likely look back on this time and wonder how we ever coped. The problem is, according to the IFS and UCL study, in homes with two working parents, mothers are far more likely than fathers to spend their working hours also trying to look after children. Working mums are also more likely to have lost their jobs or have experienced a reduction in working hours. As a result, the paper states, "The combined effect is that in lockdown, mothers in two-parent households are only doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers. Before lockdown, mothers did around 60 percent of the uninterrupted work hours of fathers. This sharp reduction in the time that mothers are spending dedicated to paid work risks lasting harm to their careers when the lockdown is lifted".
To add to the disproportionate load being placed on mums working from home, they are looking after their children for around 2.3 more hours and spending an extra 1.7 hours on housework compared to fathers. This represents a total of four additional hours expended on family duties each day. However, as a counterbalance, the study does acknowledge that fathers are now spending nearly twice as many hours caring for children compared to 2014-15 and are doing more in terms of household tasks than before COVID-19.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), despite a growing awareness of the problem, the gender pay gap has made little positive progress in recent years, seeing a reduction of only 0.6 percent since 2012. The current gender pay gap is 8.9 percent for full-time employees, and 17.3 percent for all employees. For those under 40, however, the gender pay gap for full-time workers is now almost zero, and for workers between 40-49 years, the pay gap has reduced considerably to 11.4 percent in recent years.
While the overall gender pay gap is not improving much, the improving figures for those their forties and below may be at risk due to the Coronavirus lockdown. One reason is that mothers are 47 percent more likely than fathers to have left their role or lost their job, and 14 percent more likely to have been furloughed. The second reason is that mothers tend to have reduced their working hours much more than fathers – potentially to allow them to balance the needs of the family. Working mothers have seen their hours reduced from 6.3 to 4.9 hours per weekday; working fathers have had their hours reduced from 8.6 to 7.2 hours.
Commenting on the results of the study, Alison Andrew, a Senior Research Economist at the IFS, observed that "Mothers are more likely than fathers to have moved out of paid work since the start of lockdown. They have reduced their working hours more than fathers even if they are still working and they experience more interruptions while they work from home than fathers, particularly due to caring for children. Together these factors mean that mothers now -are only doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours that fathers are. A risk is that the lockdown leads to a further increase in the gender wage gap."
Families are still adjusting to the COVID-19 lockdown and many have been trying different strategies to ensure the needs of the whole family can be met during these new and exceptional circumstances. Staggering working hours, where possible, may allow one person to focus on work without being disrupted, while the other takes over childcare duties, effectively 'shielding' their other half from any disturbances. It is vital that in doing so, the burden of household work should also be shared, including shopping, cleaning, cooking, tidying, dog walking, gardening, or any other domestic duties. Working fathers have already ramped up their share of household duties since the onset of the pandemic, however, it may be necessary to further increase these to achieve a fair balance. A simple rota system can be put in place to ensure that all household duties are completed, and hence removes any assumptions that the other person will complete the task.
In this current time, everyone has a part to play to ensure that working mothers are not disproportionately impacted as a result of an increased household burden. For much of the lockdown, parents have taken full responsibility for childcare, day after day, week after week, as this could not be shared with family, friends, and school teachers. It is, therefore, incumbent on everyone to do what they can. Mothers need to ask for help, employers should consider the needs of working mothers, and fathers should do everything they can to ensure that the running of the house and childcare is equal. And by doing so, working mothers will hopefully not see their jobs and pay negatively affected by COVID-19.
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