More than 70 per cent of working mothers who asked to be furloughed in the wake of school closures had those requests refused, according to a new TUC report. This highlights the shocking gender disparity that remains in so-called “modern” workplaces – and in the home.
Some 25 per cent of women, the survey reveals, have had to resort to dipping into their annual leave allowance to deal with childcare issues as a result of the pandemic. And where furlough is an option, many are being forced to choose between maintaining their income, or their child’s education – there is no legal requirement for employers to top up the 80 per cent furlough payments provided by the government, meaning that furloughed staff could be paid less than the minimum wage.
Women appear to be taking on the lion’s share of childcare – that’s nothing new, as many mothers will tell you. Yet figures released last year by the Office of National Statistics showed that in households with children aged 18 or younger, women carried out 3 hours and 18 minutes of daily childcare duties – including feeding, washing and dressing their kids – on average during lockdown, compared to men, who only did 2 hours. This, despite battling similar pressures such as remote working and homeschooling.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies also reports that for every 1 hour of uninterrupted paid work done by mothers, fathers were achieving 3 hours. The only time unpaid work was shared equally between parents was when the mother was doing paid work and the father was furloughed.
The campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed surveyed 2,230 mothers of primary school aged children and found that a staggering 21 per cent have either quit or been pushed out of their jobs since Christmas. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, who has criticised the government’s lack of support for working parents, notes that “tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing”.
And it is, truly, “despair” – one mother told me she had approached her “supposedly progressive” law firm to ask about furlough this week and was told her only option was to take paid holiday or to make a flexible working request. “We are both working and only just about coping with homeschooling as well,” she said. “I have no idea how we can sustain this until March.”
Another said she is in “work survival mode” – where she is only able to action what is urgent. “I don’t have the bandwidth to put my hand up for extra projects or tasks that will raise my profile or lead to promotion,” she said.
Some women have found it so impossible to cope that they’ve changed careers completely. “I quit my job to start my own business after the first lockdown because I found myself crumbling under the pressure of it all," a fellow parent told me. "It was ridiculous. My stress levels were through the roof, I was working before and after the kids went to bed, as well as countless nights and weekends – unpaid.
"I was also home-schooling both my boys, cooking, cleaning and generally keeping the house in order. It’s so hard not to feel guilty for missing home-schooling tasks, or for pacifying your children with screens to jump on an unplanned call. Professional women, even those of us in senior roles, have been dealt a very short straw. We’ve been pushed back into the 1950s.”
The ramifications for what this will do to women’s careers is stark – not least where unconscious bias is concerned. “People try to do you a favour because they know you’re juggling work with looking after your kids,” one mum in a senior position added. “So, you might not get pulled into important discussions, which has a career impact, because you’re not at the table.”
She also said that while her employer had offered paid “emergency childcare leave”, nobody had taken them up on it. “I’m really conflicted – I need it, but I feel there would be a negative impact of me taking it at a time when restructuring is rife. I don’t want to do anything that would affect me. I’ve seen first-hand how those on furlough can be the first to go.”
If the constant “head in hands” and “red wine” emojis that litter my WhatsApp groups are anything to go by, any novelty value we might have enjoyed while homeschooling our kids the first time round has well and truly worn off. I laughed in lockdown 1.0 about my four-year-old sticking my feet to the floor with electrical tape, and my eight-year-old practicing the recorder directly into my right ear, while I worked to deadline. This time, though, it’s more gruelling for everyone – and it’s having a profound effect on our relationships, career progression and mental health.
“My husband and I are both working, so we’re home-schooling our two kids 50/50, but domestic duties and the mental load all falls to me: planning stuff to do with them, making plans with our bubble, thinking of ways to keep us all sane,” one friend said. “It’s having an impact on my reputation – not to mention my productivity. I start every day wanting to be content with the small wins and end it worried about tanking at work because I’m prioritising the kids.”
Part of the problem lies in the fact that what used to be known as “women’s work” still exists – it’s just underappreciated. Much of the time, people praise fathers for “helping”, whereas women are seen as “flaky” – a sentiment echoed by the hordes of women expressing their frustrations to each other online.
“When dads are on a Zoom call and their kids wander in, people think it’s ‘cute’ and it actually positively impacts him at work,” one woman said. “There are massive double-standards for women.” We can relate – we all saw the way Sky News foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes was treated after being interrupted by her son’s urgent call for biscuits.
News that working mothers are being denied furlough isn’t surprising – but it is desperately disappointing. We like to think that we’ve come on leaps and bounds in terms of gender equality – but the fear is that the pandemic is sending us backwards. And, as one dear friend put it: “What’s happening now is not flexibility, it’s working all hours to survive... only to end up feeling shit, because you’re doing all of it quite badly.”