Why lockdown is hitting women harder, and how to start fixing it

Mica Murphy / Penguin

Helen Lewis called it at the beginning of the outbreak: ‘one of the most striking effects of the coronavirus,’ she wrote, in a 19 March story for The Atlantic, ‘will be to send many couples back to the 1950s. Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic.’

Not quite silent. Since then, Slate, Refinery29, The Guardian and others have published variations on the same theme: that a considerably larger share of the coronavirus pandemic’s fallout has been borne by women. Between planning and making meals, cleaning the house, and childcare – The Guardian points out that, according to analysed data from April 9 to 14, mothers in the UK are typically providing at least 50% more childcare as well as spending around 10% to 30% more time than fathers homeschooling their children – Covid-19 has been, to borrow Lewis’s headline, ‘a disaster for feminism.’

Lewis, the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, isn’t at all surprised. Over the phone, we talk about the ways that, despite the feminist progress of the last half-century or so, the working world is still organised in such a way that it was always going to regress in a time of crisis.

‘The most striking statistic that I found when I was researching that piece [for The Atlantic], is that only 13% of men in employment work part-time in Britain, compared with 40% of women,’ she says. ‘So, to some extent, it’s a reflection that couples have already chosen that one job has to yield, one career path has to yield, and it’s the woman’s.’

Annabelle Williams, whose book Why Women Are Poorer Than Men (and What We Can Do About It) is out later this year, elaborates on how easily women’s work becomes de-prioritised.

'Socially speaking, 40% of women work part-time and only 13% of men do, but the real problem is that part-time jobs tend to be low-paid and low-skilled roles. So, when a woman goes into work part-time after having children [in order to care for them], she’s automatically taking a step back from being a higher earner. And the man is automatically, maybe unknowingly, stepping into the breadwinner role. And then his job is prioritised.'

Yet, a common theme in many of these articles is surprise: many of their authors express how the dynamic, even in progressive, evenly divided heterosexual relationships, snuck up on them. They didn’t see an imbalance there until a time of crisis illuminated how much less safe their working situation was.

Lewis isn’t surprised. Often, she says, ‘couples think they have a pretty equal relationship until they have children. Only one half of the couple is going through pregnancy and childbirth and breastfeeding and recovery. One of the things that I wrote about in the Time chapter [of Difficult Women] was this perception of this sort of “supervisory parent”; if both parents are around, who is the one that is actually paying attention to check that they’re not, you know, putting their fingers in the light sockets? That tends to more be women. So, people get nudged in a million little ways into those existing gender roles.’

Author Ann Francke, who published Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace last year, adds that even women in salaried positions, not just part-time roles, were always more likely than their male counterparts to be affected in harder economic times.

‘What happens typically is, you know, you start off with a gender-balanced workforce in the bottom 25% of the organisation. But then you move into the two middle quartiles – the next 25 and the next 25 – and at each progressive step up an organisation, you have fewer and fewer women, so that by the time you reach the top, [it’s] overwhelmingly male.’

And it’s the more junior roles, often occupied by young women, that are being hit hardest. The IFS reports that in the work sectors shut down by Covid-19, women under the age of 25 were worst affected: over 35% either lost jobs or saw their income fall because of the pandemic, compared to just over 25% of men in the same age bracket.

Women were disproportionately affected in every age bracket. The three least-affected groups? Men 35 to 44, 45 to 54 and 55 to 64.

Their safety was more or less guaranteed; pre-pandemic, men in the UK were 40% more likely to get promoted than women, Francke points out, largely due to a culture in which ‘men are more naturally able to participate in the informal networking activities that result in sponsorship – those trips to the pub or the football games – whereas women have generally more caring responsibilities, so might be absent themselves from those opportunities.’ Their higher upward mobility thrust them into more senior roles at work, better protecting them during the pandemic.

And though the pub is no longer an option for networking, those numbers may worsen. As of 24 March, on account of the pandemic, the UK government has suspended the enforcement of the gender pay gap report, which required all companies with 250 or more employees to report what they pay women versus men at all levels of their organisation.

It’s just one example, says Francke, of ‘some of the more progressive practices taking a real backseat in this whole crisis. Who knows when it will be reinstated?’

There’s further reason to fear that the return to normalcy might not come as quickly for women as men. Williams points to the Ebola crisis that affected three African countries in 2014 as a cautionary tale.

‘What we’ve seen with previous pandemics [such as Ebola] was that they had deep effects on gender equality, particularly in terms of economic equality. Men were quicker to go back out to work, because women had to stay home and prioritise health and caring roles. I expect a similar scenario will play out here; as the world slowly returns to lifting lockdown, if somebody is ill in the home or the extended family, the person that’s going to have to stop her work or responsibilities and go back and take care of that person is going to be the woman.’

Part of that is due to the nature of the work women are socialised to undertake, both at home and as paid work. One government report, from 4 March 2020, showed that women vastly outnumber men in both administrative and caring professions – and during the pandemic, it’s putting them in increasingly vulnerable positions.  

A study by the ONS showed that ‘women working in caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19 compared with women of the same age in the general population.’

How, then, do we begin to combat statistics like these? Lewis says it begins with flexibility, reconsidering beliefs we take for granted.

'Because working from home and working flexibly have been forced on a lot of companies,' she says, 'there might be less resistance' to new ways of companies making space for women’s and men’s work and parenting needs going forward. A huge part of that is due to the sudden visibility of those needs.

During lockdown, says Lewis, ‘parents of both sexes have been able to hide the juggle less. We’ve had children wandering onto Zoom meetings and people having to be much more open about what it is like to try and work with children at home. And I think that, to some extent, that’s removed some of the stigma and the shame of it. I think working mothers often feel like they have to present a front where everything is fine, because they’re worried about looking unprofessional.’

Though many of these issues are systemic, there are ways that men living in lockdown with women can help lessen their burden. The first step, says Williams, is seeing and taking note of the myriad, previously invisible ways women are socially ‘expected’ to keep the home.

‘Typically, “women’s jobs” at home are frequent, messy and include little things: picking food out of the kitchen drain, wiping children's noses, scraping spaghetti off the plates, cleaning cupboard door handles, etc. There’s a relentless nature to these kinds of tasks; almost as soon as they’re done they need doing again. “Men’s jobs” are typically infrequent, outdoors and big tasks: mowing the lawn, taking the rubbish out, washing the car, etc.’

Williams adds that ‘families being at home all the time will increase the little/women’s jobs much more so than the men’s jobs – the lawn won’t need mowing any more frequently. This has been a big source of stress during the lockdown, and hopefully it’s a chance for couples to take stock of who does which tasks and dole them out more thoughtfully.’

Francke agrees that open and honest communication is the key at home.

‘In a situation where whatever partner has less work, it’s sensible for that person to be picking up the slack around the house, but there are also situations where both partners have equal work and it’s still the woman who is bearing the burden. And that’s the thing that you have to watch out for. I would sit down and have an honest conversation with my other half about that.’

She hopes the crisis provides an opportunity for companies to pay ‘more attention’ to general well-being. Because of their tendency for caring positions both at home and in the workplace, she says, ‘women seem to be better at spotting the emotional health of their workers than men,’ but the coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to pay increased attention to it.

‘Once we are used to asking the people that work for us how they’re feeling in a remote environment, in this crisis, maybe when we get back into the office, we’ll keep asking them.’

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