Despite decades of campaigning and equalities legislation, becoming a mother still comes with professional penalties, and the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to undo the progress that’s been made so far.

Back in July 2020, it was already clear that working mothers were bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s consequences. And six months on, deep into the second wave, not much has changed. Last week, the TUC reported that 70% of women who requested furlough due to school closures were turned down. With schools shut and childcare options limited, many are being forced to take unpaid leave or slash their hours, while others are being pushed out of work altogether.

Apart from the immediate loss of income, we can expect to see a long-term impact on gender equality as the pay gap widens and discrimination against mothers becomes ever more acceptable.

Pandemic parenting and mental health

Last year’s upsurge in working from home and flexible hours should, in theory, be great news for working parents. But with home, school and office rolled into one, unrealistic expectations are putting a severe strain on mental health.

In a normal year, childcare is shared not only between parents, but with school or nursery, and extended family and friends. In lockdown however, most of those support networks have been severed and women are taking on more than their fair share of the extra work – and more than their fair share of the psychological burden. Of the 50,000 women surveyed by the TUC, nine out of ten reported increased stress and anxiety. Many described working unsociable hours and sacrificing sleep to squeeze in their regular workload around homeschooling.

But hang on – what about the fathers? Well, the TUC poll was open to all working parents, but 93% of respondents were female. The fact is that care responsibilities are still primarily shouldered by women, even when both parents work full time. Employers know this, which is why mothers also fear being first out the door when redundancies start.

What needs to change?

If you care about a gender-equitable workplace, robust support for parents isn’t optional, it’s fundamental.

That means a commitment to flexible hours and home working wherever feasible, with reasonable expectations of what’s doable during school closures. It also means agreeing to furlough parents when they need it, not forcing them to take annual or unpaid leave to bridge the gap. Between lockdowns, consider offering childcare assistance, paid parental leave, and mental health programmes to help those who are struggling to stay afloat.

Although these policies will help women in particular, it’s important not to make assumptions; ensure working fathers are equally aware of options to take time off or adjust their working conditions, and that they’re not looked down upon for doing so.

Crucially, don’t penalise parents who can’t be as present as usual. As well as offering practical support, it is vital to be vigilant against passive discrimination; make sure women aren’t losing out on opportunities or income, or worrying about their job security.

This is not a time to sit still and await a return to normal; rather, it is time to step up to the challenge of normalising flexible work, and build a company culture that is compatible with parenthood. In the long term, these policies won’t just help your workforce get through the pandemic – they’ll foster gender equity and mental wellbeing throughout your organisation.

Tell Jane can help you identify potential barriers for working mothers and make your workplace more welcoming to parents. We also provide tailored advice on the furlough scheme and other pandemic-related policies.

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