Women and The Pandemic
Updated: Mar 9
This International Women's Day we look at the set-back the pandemic has cost women and ask...
Just how screwed are we?
There’s no doubt that life has been tough for everyone over the past year. Many of us have made sacrifices and we’ve led far smaller lives in service for a greater good. Let me begin by saying thank you. To everyone else who did this - thank you. Let’s not forget the way we felt at the start. The ‘we are all heroes’ message. Just by bidding by the rules, you were potentially saving lives. I don’t want to forget or downplay that. Yet, there’s a real concern that the sacrifices made this last year have been disproportionately made by women and have gender equality in an extremely worrying way.
On International Women’s Day, all I want to do is celebrate our achievements. Still, it’s an important time to reflect and ensure we’re moving forward in reaching equality. Through this pandemic, I fear we haven’t.
That’s not our fault. I’ve been surrounded by women pushing through with their business and their careers whilst adjusting to homeschooling - kids back to school - back to homeschooling - clients cutting costs - homeschooling - generating business - doing business - then back around again. They’ve been absolute powerhouses and have also taken the time to keep others motivated too.
This last year I’ve been lucky enough to be in networking groups and online social spaces where self-employed women have come together to support and celebrate each other when we’ve really needed it. Yet, many women have not had that. Many women have sold their business or walked away. Many have given up their jobs, been made redundant, or have just been let go. More women than men. Many women who planned to go back to work after maternity leave have not been able and now face reentering a job market they have been out of for longer than they intended.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear on International Women’s Day. Feminism is not about making women work. It’s about choice. Any woman who chooses to stay at home and care for their children and home full time is a working woman. Any man who does the same is still a working man. Feminism is about the right to choose, for everyone. Unfortunately, not all of these choices are equally valued in society.
There’s been some, but not enough, reporting on women reverting to traditional gender roles again through the Covid-19 crisis.
This March the Guardian reported that;
“In the UK, women did two-thirds of the extra childcare in the first lockdown, and were more likely to be furloughed”
Woman have been reported to have taken on more housework and taken on more childcare responsibilities over lockdown. For many, this has meant taking a step back from their careers. To the women I know who’ve done this I asked why and the resounding answer was either ‘my husband earns more,’ or, ‘my husband can’t ask to work fewer hours.’ Both can be easily traced back to old issues still unresolved. The damn gender pay gap cannot be ignored, especially now because it’s predominantly been the lower-wage employees who’ve lost their jobs, which means mostly women. Plus, it’s meant that within marriages the highest earner kept their job when children needed a parent available to homeschool. There’s no doubt that the gender pay gap has been a major force in driving many women to put their careers on hold. And what happens when we do? We slip back down the ladder and start again at a lower wage, punished because we took time out of work to care for our children.
It feels like a losing battle but let’s just get some perspective here - we are half of the population. HALF OF THE POPULATION! Why are we putting up with this? We have immense power.
So this international women’s day please stand up to say this is not good enough.
Here, we’ve been talking mostly about nuclear families, but what of the single parents? Single parents have not been considered on government forms for childcare support during this crisis. One story reported that a keyworker had only the choice to say whether her husband was or was not a key worker. Since she was a single mother she checked that they weren’t and therefore got no childcare. Self-employed single parents, like myself, have had to balance out homeschooling and working with no support, no loss of earnings compensation and no media attention even.
So let’s look at this pragmatically. Single mothers have been forgotten. Many men have felt as if they can’t ask to take a career break or reduce their hours. Women in social care roles have lost jobs. Many other women have needed to reduce their hours to care for their kids after schools had to close. Some women have had to close businesses or resign for this reason. Is it me or does this all feel quite 1950s? After the biggest leap forward in female equality for years, this pandemic has risen up and pushed us right back into the dark ages.
We must not let this happen. There is so much to do now. We have to look after our kids and our family members who’ve been alone through these lockdowns. We need to look after ourselves because there’s about to be a lot of grief and a lot of delayed reaction to all that’s happened. I can completely see that now is not the time to take on the patriarchy. And yet… if we don’t we’re all fucked. Men too.
The twisted way in which this system works has been so apparent this last year and it’s not just lockdown that’s been stress-inducing. It’s realising that we’re not living in a fair and equal world. It’s women who’ve taken the big hits during this pandemic and that’s not ok.
Let’s make the last year mean something by learning from it and demanding change.
What can we do now to keep feminism moving forward?
Bring Men Into The Conversation
The problem is that we can’t do it alone and feminism is not just about women. It’s about equality. We’re not in the 1950s anymore because most men don’t want to be stereotyped into assumed gender roles either.
Of course, there are some powerful men who still route for the boy’s club but they are not only dictating the lives women live but also the lives men live. Many modern men want to be involved in taking care of their kids. They want choices too. So on international women’s day, this is not just a fight for women but it’s a fight for everyone to be able to make choices. So long as half of the population is asking for equal rights, it’s not enough. The whole of the population needs to stick a middle finger up to these outdated gender roles and assumptions. We need to open up a discussion with men and we need to change the culture around traditional male roles if we are ever to truely rid ourselves of traditional female roles. A few years ago I asked a man why he wasn’t taking his full paternity leave and he told me none of the men did. Said he’d be laughed at if he did. That it would be assumed he no longer cared about his job. Whilst many women have struggled with employers since having children, we struggle because we resist. Men are less practised in resisting their stereotypes. We need to change the landscape for men too. Break down the barriers that prevent them from asking for more life-work balance. Men need to speak up too. They must not be sneered at when they ask to take time out to be there for the kids or to care for a vulnerable family member.
"20 per cent of mothers had had to reduce their working hours because of care responsibilities – yet only 10 per cent of fathers did the same." - UCL Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health
Working from home
If homeworking has been proven to work this last year, and in many occupations it really has, then does that not open more opportunities to parents who want to raise their kids and work?
Wasn’t it beautiful to see the real lives of employees when the kids and cats burst into the background of Zoom meetings. Let’s all stop pretending we can split our lives in two. One part of ourselves we present in the office and another part at home. It’s not real and it’s killing us. Let’s be both and recognise that being both makes us better parents and better employees. If I can homeschool and meet deadlines for clients then why should any future employer question my commitment because I’m a parent? Or even a single parent? So many of us have proven we can be both people. Not only are most parents highly skilled at time management and multitasking but time spent working is time away from our kids. So we’re putting in 100% to make it worth it. Business leaders need to stop focusing false concerns about working mothers being a drain and instead consider themselves lucky to be attracting such a productive part of the workforce.
Be the Change
For those of us who have not had our careers stalled or slowed down by the pandemic we have the potential to make sure the door is open for those who did. Unfortunately, there are many women who struggle to climb the corporate ladder and then shut the door behind them as they achieve success.
When we look at combating equality there’s alway a backlash of ‘what about…?’ Not enough female TV and film directors - what about Shona Rhimes? Not enough female comedians - what about Sarah Millican? Not enough women in business - what about Sheryl Sandburg. The reason though we know their names, the reason we can think of examples is that they stand out because they are the minority, still. This goes for race and sexual oriantation as well. Having one person who doesn’t fit the mould does not signal equality has been reached. In fact, it’s when it’s no longer mentioned that we might have done so. Tokenism is only tokenism until it isn’t, as they say.
The most powerful thing we can do is speak up and show up. Whilst we cannot deny the inequalities that exist and threaten to widen, and neither does it do us any good to recognise and stand by. So we have to create a world that is more equal. For everyone. Whenever an opportunity is created, whether that’s a job, an event or even a discussion, we need to ask ourselves - is this an opportunity for everyone? And does it look like that?