The she-cession: Women are losing MORE jobs and doing MORE home schooling (not to mention being patronised by sexist Covid ads) – SARAH SANDS says it’s no wonder so many are at their wits’ end
Are we witnessing a female flight from the workplace? Certainly, one of the immediate knock-on effects of the pandemic is a downturn in women’s employment.
This virus has disproportionately hit sectors staffed by women, such as retail and hospitality.
There has been an acceleration, too, in the switch to home delivery – mostly male drivers handing out parcels that have been packed in giant warehouses by other men.
Jobs that are local and part-time, and so particularly attractive to women, are disappearing. Covid has also closed schools, creating a huge crisis in childcare.
To add to the problem, grandmothers have been incarcerated, removing one of the first sources of family help.
Are we witnessing a female flight from the workplace? Certainly, one of the immediate knock-on effects of the pandemic is a downturn in women’s employment. This virus has disproportionately hit sectors staffed by women, such as retail and hospitality
There is no surprise at the enraged response from women to the Government’s recent Watch With Mother-style advertisement, as part of its Stay At Home campaign. It shows a mother holding a child next to what looks like an ironing board. In another picture, a woman is depicted home-schooling and there’s third image of a mother sharing the housework with her daughter with a mop and bucket. Only one man is featured – lying on a sofa with mother and child… presumably exhausted by his day
As the economy shrinks, no wonder we are witnessing what has been called a ‘She-cession’.
It is in stark contrast to previous recessions or economic downturns, when men in construction and manufacturing took the hit.
And, cruelly, it has coincided with a social milestone. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in January last year, women held more than half of the jobs in the United States for the first time in over a decade – the result of improvements and expansion in healthcare and education.
But suddenly the pandemic has recast women in traditional roles as home-makers rather than breadwinners. Figures on female employment show a striking dip, especially in the age group of 25 to 34. In other words, the main child-bearing years.
A report by the corporate networking website LinkedIn suggests that female hiring reached its lowest point in April.
As befits the founder of the bluntly named organisation Pregnant Then Screwed, Joeli Brearley (above, with her sons) puts it in plain terms: Women are being fired and women are quitting
Almost 20 per cent of women in all sectors said they had suffered job losses and cuts in wages compared with 13 per cent of men.
As befits the founder of the bluntly named organisation Pregnant Then Screwed, Joeli Brearley puts it in plain terms: Women are being fired and women are quitting.
She says: ‘I think we are seeing a generational roll-back. And once mothers are out of the workforce, it is harder to get them back.’
Indeed, there is no surprise at the enraged response from women to the Government’s recent Watch With Mother-style advertisement, as part of its Stay At Home campaign.
It shows a mother holding a child next to what looks like an ironing board. In another picture, a woman is depicted home-schooling and there’s third image of a mother sharing the housework with her daughter with a mop and bucket. Only one man is featured – lying on a sofa with mother and child… presumably exhausted by his day.
Many mothers understandably felt the Government was being patronising and sexist in stereotyping their role. Even if both parents were working from home, or even if the father was on furlough, the official message seemed to be that it was the responsibility of mothers to do the bulk of childcare and domestic work.
Joeli, a mother-of-two who was sacked from her job when four months pregnant with her first child and who now campaigns against discrimination, says she has been contacted by many women who say they cannot do it all. Their work is suffering and employers are noticing. Eventually, at their wits’ end, some feel forced to quit their job.
Statistics assembled by the online parenting forum Mumsnet are telling. Thirty-seven per cent of mothers surveyed say lockdown has affected their career prospects in a way that is not true for their partners.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last summer that mothers are 47 per cent more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs. And 71 per cent of parents of primary-age children who have jobs say responsibility for home-schooling has made them ‘a worse employee or less effective at work’.
Statistics assembled by the online parenting forum Mumsnet are telling. Thirty-seven per cent of mothers surveyed say lockdown has affected their career prospects in a way that is not true for their partners
And according to the Office for National Statistics, women spend about 66 per cent more time doing childcare than men during lockdown. In a corollary of this, 21 per cent of mothers say they have reduced their working hours to cope with increased childcare demands.
There is another, more worrying, trend, which is that Government policy seems to treat women as second-class citizens. Crass adverts aside, emergency aid for the self-employed, for example, overlooked the maternity-leave income gap.
Whereas last summer public debate seemed to be dominated by keeping Premier League football alive and barbers open to trim men’s beards, the nation’s nail bars and beauticians – exemplary Thatcherite self-employed women – lagged behind as a priority for reopening. It was as if no Ministers had thought of them.
As for health, it had to be pointed out by this newspaper that pregnant women needed to have their partners with them at births. And there seemed scant concern that a suspension of IVF treatment could mean a denial of motherhood for many women. The biological clock does not stop for lockdown.
After years of encouragement to get more women in the workplace, including measures on parental leave and nursery care, female employment has quickly slipped down the political agenda.
Is society now regressing, with men once again designing the future of work and ignoring the role of women? A new book – written by two men – called Working Backwards, analysing the management practices behind the success of Amazon, suggests this is so.
A review in the Financial Times noted that ‘lots of people are name-checked and almost all of them are men’.
I have always noticed, in my career as a senior media executive, that unless you keep an eye on women in mid-level jobs, they tend to disappear. The waters simply close. The women are quietly replaced by men. Worryingly, this seems the case – perhaps especially so – with newly dominant behemoths such as Amazon.
Whereas last summer public debate seemed to be dominated by keeping Premier League football alive and barbers open to trim men’s beards, the nation’s nail bars and beauticians – exemplary Thatcherite self-employed women – lagged behind as a priority for reopening. It was as if no Ministers had thought of them. (File photo)
I have often experienced a female colleague in her late 20s with young children asking me about the possibility of moving to flexible hours. There would inevitably be a desperation in their voice. I would beg them to stick with it, explaining that the conflict would ease in time as childhood is not for ever.
As for their childcare needs, my view was they had to do whatever was necessary. In one case, a talented journalist simply plonked her daughter at the desk next to her after school hours, and over time I watched the young girl grow up.
Interestingly, female flight from the workplace at mid-career level is happening at the same time as corporations are desperate to have females – particularly black and ethnic-minority females – on their boards.
Susie Cummings, chief executive of Nurole, a head-hunting tech platform, says companies are hungry for diversity.
Significantly, too, she believes the pandemic can bring about more opportunities for jobshare and flexibility, which women have craved for so long.
‘You don’t have to drag yourself across town for meetings any more. For we know now that so much can be done on Zoom,’ Susie says.
She also points out that lockdown has unleashed that great female professional weapon: the ability to multi-task. Whereas men tell her they are desperate to return to their offices, unable to cope with domestic interruptions and responsibilities, she says ‘women are used to doing several things at once’.
Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of the business campaigning group London First and soon to be chairman of builders’ merchant Travis Perkins, says she has noticed an increased female presence at online corporate social events. Incidentally, they are now often being scheduled with more convenient start times.
Jasmine has witnessed another healthy trend: during work meetings, men are more likely to discuss home life and to take a pride in their childcare activities. ‘A taboo has been broken,’ she says.
On the plus side, too, she sees female employment opportunities in some traditionally male-dominated industries. Why not White Van Woman? But this requires everyone to see the benefits and play their part.
Although Justine Roberts, the chief executive and founder of Mumsnet, says female flight from the workplace is the ‘bleak side’ of the pandemic, there is now widespread discussion of what she calls ‘domestic distribution’ and a growing awareness of who does what at home.
Indeed, this may change social attitudes in a way that might otherwise have taken years.
Justine says: ‘Habits change. Lots of small businesses are giving up offices. This is going to make a big difference. The future is hybrid.’
Hybrid working arrangements – a combination of working from home and office time – favour women in the long term. The truth is this may be the biggest liberation for women since the invention of the internet.
Today, it is hard for women to conceive of a time when they did not have to divide their lives between home and work, but I can still remember back to stomach-churning episodes.
For example, there was the day when my au pair phoned me at the office to say my three-year-old son was on the roof of the house and couldn’t get down. During the terrifying 45 minutes it took me to get home, I had no idea what I would find. Less dramatic were the many times I stayed late at the office to finish work.
Now women can pick up work again when at home at a time that suits them.
Of course, such freedom does not apply to those in the caring professions, retail and hospitality. There is much still to be done to restructure such sectors.
We have long talked about the balance of work and home life – now we may be looking at more of a merger. And there are fundamental consequences to this. As Joeli Brearley puts it: ‘You can’t get equality in the workplace until you have it in the home.’
If both partners are at home more, there is inevitably a shift in the balance of domesticity. But this will not happen overnight. Also, the domestic division of labour may not continue when schools return. And, in any case, the circumstances of all working women are not uniform. The wealthier can afford more childcare.
Whatever the case, women, as they have for millennia, are learning how to adapt. For all the jobs that have been lost during the lockdowns, new ones will be created.
Significantly, too, since women have been cast as the main carers of the pandemic, there is a justice in the fact that so many new jobs will become available in the caring sectors.
They may not feel it, but there ought to be particular hope among school-leavers. Although job prospects for both sexes are equally tough, there is a new realism about the working world.
The increase in demand to study science and technology subjects shows that the young are acutely aware of where the opportunities are. Jo Trigg, director of communications at the Royal Academy of Engineering, says there has been a heartening rise in female university applications to study engineering.
Follow the jobs, find good childcare and the She-cession can be beaten.
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