Turn back time, women and the next economic recovery

The year is 2020. Past economic slumps have prompted women to re-enter the workforce to supplement lost household income, but the recovery from the COVID 19 pandemic is different: revealing that removing access to childcare is all it takes for modern family economics to collapse in favour of men.

In any economic downturn, some people are hit harder than others, but with women more likely to be in low-paid, precarious employment in the sectors brought to a halt by lockdown, equality in the home and the workplace is still astonishingly far out of reach.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the median weekly pay for women in full-time employment was £528 in April 2019 and £628 for men. Considering that the average weekly household spending sits around £585, it’s clear that the negative economic effects of lockdown will have hit most families hard.

Just one earner furloughed could mean losing between £105 and £125 towards household spending per week. Just one earner losing employment altogether puts the average family in serious financial jeopardy and single income households in almost instant debt.

At the height of the 2007–2008 financial crisis, it was men in manufacturing and construction who experienced tremendous job losses, but the COVID 19 pandemic is hitting women unusually hard across the board, with the triple threat of the loss of both low and higher paid work; as much as a 40-hour increase in unpaid work, such as childcare, and a significant rise in reports of domestic violence.

Times of relative economic stability tend to hide the fact that equality of opportunity is not the same as equality in practice. As a society, we have too long accepted the narrative that because women can work they are equal in work and that the women who still experience inequalities must therefore represent an unfortunate number of exceptional cases. The reality is that our professional and private lives are still built on the assumption that only women are expected to perform certain roles.

Take paternity leave, for example. In the UK, fathers are still only entitled to two weeks of statutory paternity leave since it was introduced, when? In the 1980s? The 1990s? Nope, since it was introduced in 2003.

Almost 20 years later, we’ve seen women invent gene editing technology, break the record for the longest stay in space and run mountain ultra-marathons while breastfeeding, but the maternity and paternity provisions in the UK still assume that paying dads to spend more than two weeks with their newborns is a blow our economy just can’t take, and lockdown is only throwing our lack of progress into sharper relief.

If both parents working remotely means that dad is shut away in his home office, while mum tries to Zoom her colleagues amongst the spilled glitter and macaroni artwork on the kitchen table, then, when it comes down to it, not much has changed since women first entered the workforce.

During lockdown, women who were fortunate to still be in a position to work have experienced a marked reduction in “uninterrupted” working hours, with lasting impacts on their wellbeing, productivity and prospects for future earning. The loss of these uninterrupted working hours will have ramifications for women’s careers and for society as a whole, as evidenced by the fact that academic papers by women have all but dried up during this time, while those written by men have actually increased.

Of course, not every woman has children and there are a great many households in which men and women divide domestic duties with fairness and careful consideration, but — and it is a big “but” — so far the COVID 19 pandemic has revealed that rather than being an equal society, we have merely grown accustomed to having the majority of women do more than their fair share for less economic reward.

As soon as support networks from grandparents to after school clubs are removed from the equation, it is still women who fill most of the void in most of the households in this country, from which we can draw the conclusion that the average dad in the average household still isn’t doing enough domestic work to give mum an equal share of the free time that keeps her sane.

The post-pandemic recovery is an opportunity to rectify a lot of what has been swept under the carpet. Mothers and fathers need to bring up their sons and daughters to be as independent at home as they wish them to be in the classroom. Employers need to address the fact that the gender pay gap is going to be more real than ever and governments need to ensure that their policies don’t assume that women will continue to pick up the slack. That’s exactly what opening up a construction site before you open the local primary school suggests.

Before lockdown, women did about 60% more unpaid work than men on top of their actual jobs. After lockdown, women will have been assigned even more, as children go to school on alternate days and elderly relatives increasingly rely on their care. Meanwhile, employers in the sectors women are most likely to work in will be running on a shoestring to survive. Opportunities for advancement will be even fewer and further between than they already were since the last recession.

Getting women back to anything like real income equality will be a hard and mostly private slog in kitchens and utility rooms. If you’re an employer who is policing every hour your workforce spends away from their inbox, or asking that people work while furloughed, then you’re part of the problem. If you’re a father cooking a family meal once a week in an ‘I’m a feminist’ t-shirt then you’re part of the problem too.

The first step is for us all is to acknowledge that we’re asking women to do everything whether we’re aware of it or not. We’re telling them to save for their old age, but to be the only ones to take time out to have kids; to earn enough to keep their families above water after one recession, but to step back to look after the kids during the next, all the while insisting that we already achieved equality at some unspecified moment in history.