Clare Wenham: Let’s recognise all women who have been caregivers during this last year

Let’s push governments to recognise the additional labour being undertaken, and to create meaningful gender mainstreamed policy change, says Clare Wenham

International Women’s Day 2021 coincides today with the return to school for most children in the UK. Let us take a time to reflect on how these issues interrelate, and to recognise the unpaid labour that women, particularly mothers, have absorbed while schools have been closed. 

In January 2020, 71% of women in the UK were in some form of employment. Three months later, with the arrival of covid-19 and the government’s school closures and lockdown requirements, this had dropped by 5%. This experience in the UK is not an anomaly—in the US, women are four times more likely to have lost their jobs than men, a similar trend is being seen across much of the European Union. Such statistics only consider those in formal employment. Those working in the informal sector globally have also suffered an intense hit as much of their work has dried up because of changed socio-economic patterns. 

But where do these numbers come from? Women are out of the workforce for three main reasons: Firstly, women are more likely than men to have been furloughed. Data from January 2021 suggest 2.3m women have been furloughed compared to 2.1m men. This means many women have taken a 20% pay cut and are now at heightened risk of job loss at the end of the furlough scheme. Secondly, women have disproportionately lost jobs due to the sectors they work in, those sectors most severely affected by lockdown measures: hospitality and accommodation; retail; education and childcare. Thirdly, women were forced out of the labour force because they absorbed the labour associated with disease control policies. Globally it is estimated that women have taken on an additional 6.1 hours per day of domestic care, compared to men’s 4.7 hours. While it is notable that men have increased their unpaid work, there are differences between men’s uptake of developmental care (home-school, playing etc) compared to women who are more likely to do the non-developmental care at home (cleaning, cooking, etc), reflecting compounded household bargaining. This increase in burden has meant that many women have had to ask for voluntary furlough on childcare grounds or have left their jobs as a consequence. Some, however, have continued in paid employment while absorbing this additional unpaid care, resulting in days starting at 4am and ending at midnight, trying to fit in what was expected of them in their job alongside care of their children. 

Why do women absorb this additional labour at a cost of economic security? Our research project has established three key grounds for this. Firstly, cultural gendered norms have pre-supposed that women will take on this additional role, as they are the primary care givers in the family. Recent research has suggested that during a crisis, gender norms can become compounded, further adding to this difference in expectation. Secondly, as many women were at home anyway, furloughed, or had lost their jobs due to the sectors they work in, many women are at home and out of employment, and therefore are able to take on this work. Thirdly, the gender pay gap present in most dual parent households in the UK has meant that when making decisions as to who remains in paid employment, and who takes time to be with the kids during lockdown, it has been the lower paid (usually the woman) who has done so. While this refers to the UK, our multi-country research project has demonstrated that while gender is context specific, these trends are quite universal. 

This unpaid burden and financial precarity placed onto women is obviously more acute for some women than others. For example, only 9% of working-class women in the UK can work at home, with the remaining either working as key workers and continuing to go to work, placing themselves at risk of disease transmission, or have left the workforce. Single parents, 90% of whom in the UK are women, have been significantly more affected. They are more likely to have lost jobs or been furloughed than dual parent households, increasing the risk of poverty amongst this group of women and their children. 

This has had short term impacts on women—the women we interviewed almost unanimously discussed being “at bandwidth” and unable to cope with the demands on their time. Most stated that they had concerns with mental health, stress, anxiety and exhaustion. However, the long-term risks are also of particular concern: we know from previous health emergencies that a shock event can have significant impact on women’s reintegration into the workplace. One year after the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, 63% of men had returned to work, compared to 17% of women, in 2021, 5 years after the Zika outbreak in Brazil, 90% of women with a child with Congenital Zika Syndrome remain out of work. 

So on this international women’s days, let’s recognise all women and mothers who have been caregivers during this last year—whatever that looks like. Let’s push the government not only to recognise the additional labour being undertaken, but to create meaningful gender mainstreamed policy change, such as publishing equality impact assessments of covid-19 policy; bailing out of the childcare sector; ensuring re-training for women whose jobs/sectors may not exist in the future; and due recognition of the role of women in health and social care workforce. This would be the most impactful way we could celebrate. 

Clare Wenham is assistant professor of Global Health Policy at London School of Economics. Twitter @clarewenham

Competing interests: None declared.