When lockdown began, Naomi initially hoped she could muddle through. She was used to working from home as a management consultant, and her boss was flexible about when the work got done. But, as a single parent to two children, seven and six, a few weeks of home schooling by day and working late into the night left her exhausted.
“I’m the school cook, cleaner and caretaker, I’m the teacher, and as well I’m trying to be the consultant after they’ve gone to bed. I realised I was going almost 24/7,” she says. So, in April, she asked to be added to her company’s furlough list; when her boss agreed, she felt nothing but relief. “I tried; I really did try. But I’m only human, and I can only be stretched so far before everything falls apart.”
Lately she has begun job-hunting, worried her position might not be waiting for her when the pandemic ends. “I can’t afford to be in that situation with two kids, because no one will be coming to our rescue; it will just be me,” says Naomi, who is acutely aware that some of her lone-parent friends are now worrying about how they are going to feed their children.
Naomi … ‘I’m only human, and I can only be stretched so far before everything falls apart.’
Men have paid disproportionately with their lives during this pandemic, yet it’s women who seem to be bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. Young women were hardest hit by redundancies early on, when female-dominated sectors such as retail, hotels and hairdressing salons shut overnight. Women working from home are also shouldering more of the housework and childcare than men, according to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), while the charity Carers UK estimates that around 4.5 million people have had to become unpaid carers for sick or disabled relatives during the pandemic and that the majority of them will be women. Now, the government’s decision to open non-essential shops and offices last week, despite schools and nurseries not being fully open, is trapping more parents between a rock and a hard place.
“Mothers are one and a half times as likely as fathers to have lost their job, or quit or been furloughed in this crisis,” says Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s shadow early years minister, who notes that when something has to give in dual-income couples, it’s often the lower earner’s job. She is increasingly hearing from mothers afraid their inability to work uninterrupted at home, or return to the office, will count against them when redundancies are looming. “A very high-flying lawyer I spoke to had decided to self-isolate with her sister and her husband (for childcare), but she’s still losing three to four hours of work a day. She’s almost sure that if they decide to make cuts at the end of the pandemic, she’s in the firing line, not her male counterparts.”
Researchers from the University of Sussex, meanwhile, warn of a regression to “a 1950s way of living” for women, with 70% of mothers reporting being completely or mostly responsible for home schooling and 67% of working women feeling like the “default” parent most or all of the time.
The IFS found on average that fathers got twice as many uninterrupted working hours as mothers.
“Without childcare, everything collapses. I don’t think the government has appreciated that at all,” says Joeli Brearley of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, which recently found that more than half of pregnant women and mothers surveyed expected the pandemic to damage their careers. “It took 20 years for us to increase female employment by 11% and now we’re going to see it massively deteriorate overnight.” Is coronavirus pushing women into a great leap backwards?
For some, lockdown may have a silver lining. It has normalised working from home, engaged fathers more in domestic life and prompted some couples to rethink who does what around the house. But overall, the IFS fears gender inequalities widening.
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Women in abusive relationships have paid a particularly heavy price, trapped inside with violent men for months. Refuge has seen a staggering 950% increase in visits to its website, where women can arrange a safe time to be contacted. Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Commons women and equalities select committee, warns the true picture may only emerge as lockdown eases, enabling more women to seek help. “As we increase people’s freedoms so they’re able to go out, what we might see is a horrendous spike not only in calls to helplines but access to refuge services. We need to keep a really close eye on how we can respond to demand.”
Women have been more likely than men to report their mental health declining in lockdown, with one study from the Institute for Economic and Social Research at the University of Essex finding 27% of women have reported experiencing problems during the pandemic compared with 11% before it. Research also suggests they are more anxious about the risks of lifting lockdown, with pollsters Ipsos Mori finding women were less comfortable than men using public transport or returning to the office.
Younger women’s stress levels, in particular, have soared, perhaps reflecting their higher risk of losing their jobs, with the Young Women’s Trust finding 53% of under-30s surveyed were financially affected.
Tara* was made redundant in March from her job with an adventure tour operator, after travel bookings collapsed. Losing her first serious job after university has left her disillusioned. “A company will change you like a pair of pants,” she says. “It was a learning curve, really, that you can give whatever you want to a company but when it comes to it, business is business.”
The 29-year-old is living with her partner’s parents, which saves her money, and has just found another job. But she worries about colleagues still job-hunting, when most of the applications she sent off didn’t even receive a reply. “My team were very close to each other and I can see how it’s affecting individuals. It’s really sad.”
Research for the Women’s Budget Group, meanwhile, suggests the pandemic is hitting BAME women disproportionately hard. BAME women are more likely than white women to fear getting into debt because of the pandemic, with almost a quarter now struggling to feed their children, yet 41% of those surveyed said they were working harder than before lockdown. That combination of long hours and poverty may reflect their over-representation in low-paid jobs on the frontline, such as social care.
The report also found that two-thirds of BAME women fear for their health when going out to work, following research that showed the virus disproportionately kills ethnic minority Britons. “I’m a black woman and that report confirmed what we already know. I’ve seen too many people who look like me lose their life to this, and I’ve experienced not being taken seriously – which I can only put down to the colour of my skin – in the health service,” says Naomi. Seven years ago, she explains, several doctors dismissed her concerns about her newborn baby’s breathing; only when she finally “lost it” in A&E were her daughter’s oxygen levels properly tested. “We were in hospital for six weeks under an oxygen tent. And this is the same system that you are asking me to trust?”
The MP Tulip Siddiq with her son, Raphael. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
There are growing concerns, too, about postnatal depression (PND) rising among isolated new mothers at a time when playgroups or drop-in clinics aren’t operating, and grandparents may not be able to risk their health by helping out.
“One in five [new mothers] had PND pre-covid, so what on earth is it going to be like now, when loneliness is one of the big causes for people struggling?” says Emily Tredget, who suffered from it when her son was born five years ago. “The waiting list for things like cognitive behavioural therapy is often six months, and that was before covid.” Furloughed from her own job as co-founder of Happity, which runs baby and toddler classes, Tredget is backing a petition signed by nearly 230,000 people for three months’ extra maternity leave to give vulnerable families breathing space during the pandemic.
By law, ministers had to conduct an equalities impact assessment on their coronavirus legislation, which should have helped government anticipate these kinds of risks for women and minorities. But Liz Truss, the cabinet minister responsible, has refused requests from Nokes’s committee to publish it, meaning MPs can’t identify anything the government missed. Amid worries that women’s concerns may not be heard strongly enough in Downing Street, female backbenchers are becoming increasingly proactive.
Next month, the former minister Maria Miller will try to push a backbench bill through parliament preventing employers making women redundant from the moment they announce a pregnancy to six months after returning from maternity leave.
Meanwhile, Laura Farris, the Conservative co-chair of the all-party women and work group, is exploring imaginative solutions for helping mothers stay in the labour market. Some businesses are, she says, considering temporary job shares as a solution: “The employer could embrace the spirit of the job retention scheme and say: ‘We can’t afford 10 people on this team but we could afford six, and we could ask you to share that [work].’” She also wants to see “serious creative thinking” on childcare while schools are closed: “The government’s approach is to say: ‘We expect employers to be generous,’ but we’re now looking at a long stretch, perhaps another three months before there’s a possibility of the rump of schools going back.” Nokes is pressing ministers to set up and run summer play schemes in July and August, if the holiday clubs on which many working parents rely can’t operate.
The big emerging challenge is a drastic shortage of childcare places for mothers trying to come back from maternity leave. Many nurseries and childminders aren’t accepting new children, because they need extra space to allow for social distancing. Others aren’t allowing “settling in” periods – where parents come in with the baby initially to ease the transition – or even letting prospective parents look round, because of the infection risk from extra adults on the premises. “I heard from a woman today who has resigned from her job because she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the baby with someone she had never met,” says Brearley, who backs the TUC’s proposal to extend the furlough scheme into autumn for parents who can’t find childcare.
Labour MP Stella Creasy in the Commons with her baby daughter, Hettie. Photograph: UK Parliament
Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, knows what that’s like; she recently ended up carrying her six-month-old daughter, Hettie, into the Commons chamber to speak during a debate, having returned from maternity leave just as the government abruptly announced it was ending the “remote parliament” experiment in voting and debating by video-link from home. She worries about working women beyond Westminster, who may fear for their jobs if they are similarly open about struggling for childcare. “If you’re a woman and you speak out, you’re seen as rocking the boat,” she says. “It’s so obvious that we’re going to see women being sacked, because they’re seen as complicated. The underlying inequalities exacerbate an already difficult situation where women feel they need to be able to show they can make things work.”
The fear meanwhile is that a temporary crisis may turn into a more permanent one, if nurseries and childminders are forced out of business by falling fees during lockdown. Siddiq says bluntly that the early years sector is “on the brink of collapse”, with one in four nurseries telling a survey by the Early Years Alliance they might close within a year. “They have fixed costs schools don’t,” says Siddiq, who is concerned that decades of expansion in childcare places could be unwound without some kind of bailout.
“I just don’t feel that government has in any way prioritised the needs of children, working parents, and especially single mothers in this pandemic.” If so, it doesn’t have long to put that right.
* name has been changed