Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
8 March 2021

Inside Covid-19’s “lost year” for women at work

The pressures of remote working and economic ruin have hit women hardest. What will the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality be in the long run?

By Alona Ferber and Katharine Swindells

Since England’s third coronavirus lockdown started in January, Jennifer* has regularly been working until 11pm. A single mother with a child in primary school, the academic and policy expert has faced an excruciating balancing act that has become the norm for many working parents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Between home-schooling, caring for her daughter, and doing her own work, there has been little time for anything else. Pushed to exhaustion, she was “lucky”, she tells me, that her workplace enabled her to take up part-time furlough, topping up her pay from the 80 per cent covered by the government.

But this has its drawbacks, too.

“It’s literally like taking a second maternity leave,” she says. “You exit… and the world has kept turning… My career opportunities are just racing by me.”

Jennifer is conscious, she says, that this is “a really middle-class concern”, but “it’s not something you choose with glee”.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Closing schools for most children has made parents, particularly women, face “a daily trade-off between the welfare of your child and income or career”, she says. “What’s a fair amount I can basically neglect my child for today?”

She has been looking forward to schools reopening on Monday 8 March.

***

Content from our partners
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people
How to power the electric vehicle revolution

Jennifer is part of a worrying trend that could set progress on equality between men and women back years. The pandemic has been hard for us all, but the biggest economic slump in 300 years, lockdown measures, and school and nursery closures, have disproportionately impacted women.

This is evident from furlough and redundancy data, but also from available research on the mass home-working experiment.

Women are more likely to work in sectors vulnerable to the economic downturn, like hospitality and retail, and are more likely to be in precarious or temporary work. Analysis of furlough data by the Women’s Budget Group last November found that women have made up the majority of those furloughed since the start of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, women were more likely to take on care of children or elderly relatives. There is no publicly available data on how many women have taken furlough for childcare or other caring responsibilities, as Jennifer did.

Polling of working parents, however, indicates that part-time furlough is more likely to be taken up by women. In a survey last July by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 65 per cent of working mothers who had been furloughed cited a lack of childcare as the reason. Of those made redundant, 46 per cent said this played a role in losing their jobs.

Data from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme across the UK shows a clear gender gap in how many men and women have been furloughed during periods of national lockdown. The gap had closed following the first lockdown and summer holidays when schools re-opened in autumn, but it widened again during November’s lockdown when schools in England did remain open. That month, 2.6 million women were on furlough compared to 1.9 million men. This shows how difficult it is to unpick childcare from other factors affecting employment.

The closing of schools and the economy affects women’s employment more
Daily number of men and women furloughed, from July 2020

Between July and September last year, redundancies peaked at 314,000, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The hardest-hit sectors overall have been administrative and support services and accommodation and food services, at 31.3 per cent and 21.5 per cent, according to the ONS. Both have some of the highest rates of female employment outside the public sector, with women making up 46 per cent and 55 per cent of the workforce in those industries before the pandemic.

Read more: Why is gender equality being overlooked in the post-Covid recovery?

Women make up 88% of the hair and beauty industry
Gender breakdown of workers, by industry

In hair and beauty, 88 per cent of the workforce and 82 per cent of business owners are women, according to the National Hair and Beauty Federation (NHBF). Flexible working is common, with 50 per cent of the workforce working part-time. This is “largely due to the fact that women are most commonly the primary carer for children and other family members,” says NHBF’s chief executive Richard Lambert.

A high proportion of businesses are also in deprived areas, where people are already struggling amid the economic crisis. A survey by the NHBF in November highlighted the precariousness of the sector: 56 per cent of businesses could not rule out redundancies and 62 per cent could not be sure they would survive until the end of the financial year, with almost a third (18 per cent) of that latter number sure they would have to close. Average turnover was down 45 per cent on 2019.

Despite the threat to this major source of female employment, “there has been a tendency to be dismissive of the personal care sector in the past”, says Lambert.

While last week’s Budget included some helpful measures like the “Restart” grant, and increased funding for the self-employed, the sector did not receive the 20 per cent cut in VAT for which it had been lobbying.

***

For those able to work remotely, the evidence points to women being the most squeezed, particularly those caring for children or elderly parents. One study on home-working by the University of Birmingham and the University of Kent found that while mothers have been working an average of 3.7 hours in the evenings and nights during lockdown, up from 2.4 hours before Covid-19, fathers and non-parents’ hours have increased far less.

Compared with men, women also reported spending far more time on housework and childcare, which reduces their available working hours and contributes to higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Asked about the negative effects of working from home, 56.3 per cent of mothers cited increased domestic labour, compared to 34.1 per cent of fathers.

Women report doing much more childcare in lockdown, and are sceptical about their partners’ help
Percentage of respondents who say they are spending more or much more time on housework/childcare activities by gender

A lack of childcare has had a tangible impact on women’s ability to contribute. According to New Statesman analysis of data from House of Commons committees, for example, the number of women appearing as expert witnesses during lockdown was far higher when schools were opened than when schools were closed, when it dropped from 39 per cent to 30 per cent. If you exclude a meeting on 3 February about domestic abuse, at which all the witnesses were women, that percentage drops to 28 per cent.

When schools were closed, women expert witnesses dropped by over a third
Number of expert witnesses speaking at House of Commons committee meetings, 5-16 October and 1-12 February, by gender

“Those women giving evidence in Parliament probably had to work quite a lot harder than the men to get to that position,” says Jennifer.

Beyond the anguish of the trade-offs, round-the-clock working, and frustrated career ambitions, it matters “that they have dropped out of a decision-making process”.

A similar argument is made about race equality, she notes: “Everyone needs to care about it not just because we don’t want to live in a horribly divisive society… but because we are missing out on talent and brilliance.”

There is some research and anecdotal evidence that women academics are falling behind, too, with submissions to academic journals slowing (though the evidence is not unequivocal).

Women without caring responsibilities are impacted too, says Kate Mattocks, a politics lecturer at the University of East Anglia. There is research that in academia “women at all levels of seniority take on more of the emotional labour with students, and that is something that has really increased… our students are suffering as well”.

Mattocks does not expect the gap will show up yet, however. “Academia is a very long game,” she says. “You work towards grants and promotions over many, many years… three to five years down the line we will see some impacts in terms of potentially women not progressing because of this lost year.”

Read more: Stella Creasy: “Coronavirus is like a magnifying lens on inequalities”

***

Is this a temporary pandemic blip, or is there a risk that more women will be pushed out of the workforce in the long term?

It is too soon to tell what the lasting damage will be to hard-hit sectors that employ a higher proportion of women, but working mothers clearly fear how a lack of childcare might affect their jobs.

A Trades Union Congress survey in January of over 50,000 people found that 48 per cent of working mothers feared they would be treated negatively by their employer because of childcare difficulties. As many as 68 per cent said their employer refused their furlough request.

68% of working mothers have had their request for furlough refused by their employer
Respondents who said they had experienced the following childcare or furlough situations

Nicky Regazzoni, who owns her own PR firm and is a member of Women in PR, says the pandemic has exacerbated long-running problems in her sector, where two-thirds are female at entry level and 64 per cent at board level are male.

For years, women have lobbied for more flexibility, as having children makes it harder to progress. “I have seen so many people just leave the industry altogether,” she says. “We call it the PR graveyard.”

But during Covid-19 “we’ve almost been hoisted by our own petard in terms of the flexible working”, says Regazzoni. The mother and stepmother of five children aged eight to 14 says the new norm of flexible working during the pandemic has become “an issue” for women if their partner is not also on a flexible or part-time contract. This is because additional domestic work tends to fall on women in this situation.

“The guy can say: ‘I’m working five days a week, there isn’t any time in the day; if you are working three days a week, you have more time’.”

Katy Thorne QC, founder and chair of Women in Criminal Law, is “a bit fearful” of the long-term impacts. While women solicitors with children are working round the clock to get their work done, barristers (who are self-employed) are “taking themselves out of the market” because of their lack of availability.

Retention of women at the criminal bar was already “a huge issue”, she says. “I think there will be a huge loss of people, but women in particular, from the criminal law because of this year.”

***

There are other potential impacts, too. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found that employed mothers positively influence their children’s adult lives, and society in general. The research found that adult daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, to earn higher salaries, and to occupy supervisory roles, explains Mayra Ruiz Castro, one of the study’s co-authors, who is now at the University of Roehampton.

The findings apply “whether women work part-time, full-time or took a career break, so the good news in that sense is that as long as there is recovery, we shouldn’t lose that impact”, she says. But much of this depends on the health of certain sectors post-pandemic, and the willingness of employers to support continued flexible working.

“I want to see this as a phase of recovery and re-adaptation, and with the full commitment of the government and employers women can catch up.”

Ruiz Castro, herself a mother of two daughters aged six and nine, is most concerned about the poor mental health and wellbeing of women with caring responsibilities.

Research shows that parents are experiencing greater anxiety than women and men who are not parents, but mothers of under-11s report higher levels of anxiety than fathers,” she saysClearly, in sectors with a higher level of female employment, there is a danger that more jobs will be cut.

There is hope that this mass social experiment could yield benefits in equality at home, however. Research by Birmingham University’s Equal Parenting Project suggests that, even though women picked up the bulk, men have been doing more unpaid work at home and routine childcare since lockdown.

“Our research also highlights that when flexible working arrangements are used by men, they take on more unpaid work in the home,” according to Sarah Forbes and Holly Birkett, who head up the project.

“If these men continue to use flexible working once lockdowns are lifted… this could better enable women to reduce the amount of unpaid work in the home that they do and increase their labour market participation.”

Pre-pandemic, flexible working was seen as the preserve of mothers. Now everyone is doing it.

“We are currently at a turning point,” say Forbes and Birkett. Either we continue with “the new social and cultural norms created during Covid-19 to develop more egalitarian attitudes and behaviours around care and housework – or we can revert back to old ways of working”.

*Name has been changed 

Read more: How the pandemic revolutionised abortion access in the UK