Women’s hard-won progress towards equality at work is in danger of being wiped out by COVID-19.
Over the last century, the biggest changes in women’s status at work have been driven not by legislation, but by necessity: wars and economic ups and downs. Both World Wars led to an influx of women in the workplace as men went off to fight – many of whom never came back to reclaim their jobs.
During boom times, governments and businesses overwhelmed with demand took on women as cheap labour, while lean times drove women to work to put food on the table.
But while Death, War, and Famine have advanced women’s equality at work, it’s become clear this year that the fourth horseman’s a bigot.
When the pandemic started, there was widespread hope that the rise of remote working would help reduce inequalities for working mothers, making it easier to juggle childcare responsibilities with work. That was before childcare responsibilities turned into homeschooling, not to mention caring for family members who are shielding or isolating. The stats show that in families with two working parents, most of this burden has fallen on women.
Juggling motherhood and a career is challenging; juggling motherhood, homeschooling, and full-time caring is unsustainable. And since most women still earn less than their male partners – a gap that looks set to widen as the recession and high unemployment push wages down – if one parent needs to quit their job, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be mum.
COVID-19 is forcing women to face a choice between career and family as stark as it’s been since the 1950s, but with a particularly cruel twist. ‘Choosing career over family’ used to mean remaining unmarried and childless. When you already have a family, there’s not much of a choice.
And for some women who do have a free choice, the perspective shift brought on by lockdown has made them realise how unhappy they are at work – often because of sexist attitudes (if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, male managers and coworkers expecting women to “look nice” for Zoom meetings haven’t helped.)
All these factors mean that many of the professional women who could have been role models for the next generation won’t be in the workplace any more.
On the upside, COVID-19 has caused a widespread shift in business culture towards compassion and mutual support. We need to channel that positive energy into supporting and championing women. This will hopefully not only keep more women in the workplace, but also encourage young women into work.