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Working women suffer as covid-19 empties classrooms across the world

As schools continue with online teaching, there are fears that widespread disruption could entrench existing inequalities, and hamper women and minorities at the workplace

During the pandemic, women have borne the brunt of childcare, with mothers’ working hours falling four times as sharply as fathers’, Photo: Unsplash
During the pandemic, women have borne the brunt of childcare, with mothers’ working hours falling four times as sharply as fathers’, Photo: Unsplash

After a long winter lockdown that included months of homeschooling, Annie Barratt hoped to concentrate on her career. Instead she is back supervising her eight-year-old son, who has twice been forced into mandatory self-isolation after a single child in his class tested positive for covid-19.

Barratt is concerned about her son’s wellbeing in isolation, highlighting the randomness of the sudden, unplanned absences. But she is also struggling to ensure she makes professional progress. Her husband’s daily routine in financial services is less flexible than hers, so she is once again taking on the lead role at home.

“A lot of my work is ideas-driven. You need the headspace and it doesn’t work if you can’t have time to think,” said Barratt, a publishing executive who lives in Bath, in the west of England.

Also read: Women spent thrice as much time on child care during the pandemic

Barratt’s situation is an increasingly common one across the UK, where covid-19 cases are now at their highest since January and many thousands of schools are sending children home into mandatory self-isolation.

Figures released recently showed that a total of 375,000 pupils in state-funded schools were absent for a covid-related reason on June 24. That equates to 5.1%, up from 3.3% on June 17 and 1.2% on June 10.

The scale of the issue has prompted the UK government to look into mandatory testing instead of self-isolation when schools return after the summer break, amid fears that widespread disruption could entrench existing inequalities and hamper women and minorities in the workplace.

When previous waves of covid-19 swept the U.K. in 2020 and early 2021 the country went into two strict lockdowns, closing schools and keeping most office-workers at home. Women bore the brunt of childcare during those periods, with mothers’ working hours falling four times as sharply as fathers’, according to Hannah Slaughter, an economist at the Resolution Foundation.

Also read: Why do we fear the ordinary when it comes to our children?

Women were also more likely to have adjusted their working hours because of childcare and homeschooling, Slaughter said. “School closures have clearly had a much bigger impact on mothers than on fathers.”

Now that the highly transmissible delta variant is fuelling a new wave of infections, school self-isolation rules are putting new pressure on parents, and women in particular. This time, though, more than 62% of adults are fully vaccinated, eroding support for blunt one-size-fits-all policies.

Organisations working to support families are reporting an increase in the numbers of enquiries from parents whose employers are insisting they return to work when their child is ordered to stay home.

Katy Salt, head of legal advice at Working Families, says many parents are having to take unpaid leave to care for their children. Recent polling for the work-life balance charity showed that 19% of parents had received no childcare support from their employer during the pandemic.

“This not surprisingly is having a disproportionate impact on not only women but also single parents as well as low-income families who can’t afford to take unpaid leave and are having to face further hardship at the worst possible time,” Salt said.

“It is also often those on low incomes who do not have the option of being able to work from home.”

The current crisis is adding to concerns about gender inequality between parents. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last month said that more mothers than fathers step away from full-time paid work when they become parents, leading to “long-lasting, cumulative impacts” on future wages.

Molly Mayer, senior research and policy officer at the Fawcett Society, a U.K. charity focusing on gender equality and women’s rights, fears the pandemic is making things worse.

“More children having to self-isolate means more women having to take time off, and that can have long-term career impacts,” she said.

Some companies are attempting to alleviate the struggle. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline Plc is offering up to five days of paid leave in “emergency carer situations,” which include unexpected school or nursery closures.

In the longer term, Danny Harmer, chief people officer at insurer Aviva Plc, wants to stop an increase in hybrid working from hampering female promotion rates. “The answer starts with how companies and society approach parenting and parental leave so that caring is no longer a gender issue but becomes something we all do, together.”

Also read: How the pandemic pushed poor students into working odd jobs

Promises of in-school testing and progressive corporate policies don’t immediately help mothers like Annie Barratt. “My career and my working life is really important to me, and so are my children. The business I work for is very empathetic.”

Yet Barratt is reluctant to tell her co-workers that she’s juggling work and parenting, fearing it sounds like an excuse. “It sounds terrible to say your child is an excuse. I want to be successful on my own without reaching for that.”

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