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Has the pandemic impacted working men and women differently?

Gender and the workplace will be explored in our next WorkL for Business webinar on Wednesday 14 April. The session, titled An unfair pandemic? Gender inequality in the workplace, will see WorkL founder Lord Mark Price delve into the data from our surveys to analyse the impact of the past year.

Experts joining the debate include: Martha Lane Fox, entrepreneur and co-founder of Lastminute.com; Roann Ghosh, author and host of podcast Self Centred with Roann; and Helen Hester, Professor of Gender, Technology and Cultural Politics at the University of West London.

Hester also leads think tank Autonomy’s Feminist Futures Programme, a platform for emerging research on gender, particularly as it relates to the future of work.

“Numerous studies indicate that the burden of unpaid care and household maintenance work associated with Covid-19 is falling disproportionately on the shoulders of women,” says Hester. The studies include an ONS report that found women took on 78% more childcare than men in households with children under five in the first lockdown.

There are other impacts too: “A recent study by Autonomy, Compass and the 4 Day Week Campaign reports that throughout all stages of the Covid-19 crisis, the mental health impact has been disproportionately felt by women,” she says.

Although schools, nurseries, adult day care facilities and community centres may be reopening, Hester points out that this isn’t an end to the problems: “While Covid-19 has made problems with work more visible and has perhaps led to them appearing increasingly pressing as the pandemic has rumbled on, it didn’t create these problems – it exacerbated a pre-existing underlying crisis, which was being particularly felt by the most vulnerable and underprivileged in our society. Working households were already struggling to balance waged and unwaged labour well before the pandemic hit.

“Since the late 1970s and particularly since the 2008 financial crash, public support for services such as elder care, long-term care, childcare and even healthcare has been reduced. As the state has stepped back, it’s been families – more precisely, in many cases, mothers, daughters, sisters and other female relatives – who have been expected to rise up and meet this demand for care.”

With the nuclear family being used as what Hester calls “the carer of last resort” she asks, “What happens when you don’t have a family unit to provide that support?”

Gender and the division of labour

Despite the division of labour falling along quite traditional and gendered lines during the pandemic, Hester points to the fact that for some households, men – particularly fathers – have had the opportunity to more actively experience and participate in forms of care-giving and household maintenance.

“There is a suggestion that these experiences might be able to change their perspectives,” she says. “According to studies on parental leave, for example, people who take paternity leave and engage in hands-on caregiving in the earliest days of a child’s life tend also to remain more actively involved in routine childcare after that point. Perhaps we’ll see an attitudinal shift in those fathers who have spent more time at home with their children in recent months. Witnessing first-hand the challenges of childcare, particularly when combined with wage work, and getting a fuller sense of the pleasures involved in daily caregiving too, could foster a more equitable distribution of this work. But the onus is really on those who have so far benefited from an imbalanced organisation of care and housework to step up and take on more responsibilities.”

The clash of waged and unwaged work

Working from home during the pandemic may have been the only way some households have been able to keep afloat in recent months, allowing them to meet their caring responsibilities. But Hester believes it has also highlighted the burden of the “second shift” of unpaid work:

“That second shift has also become a simultaneous shift because the spatial and temporal divisions between waged work and unwaged work have evaporated – you’re dealing with unwaged care at exactly the same time and in exactly the same space as you’re dealing with your waged work. A lot of work gets half done during the day and then pushed into the evenings and people – again, mostly women – have been forced to sacrifice leisure and rest in order to keep their heads above water.”

Furthermore, according to the findings of a TUC report, quotes Hester: “Mothers have been using annual or unpaid leave to meet their childcare needs and also cutting their hours or even leaving the workforce entirely to allow them to take care of their children.”

Transforming workplace culture

Hester highlights three areas where employers could help to transform the world of work for women and redress gender imbalance.

“The first is around how maternity leave, paternity leave and shared parental leave are treated. There’s a real opportunity for employers to be pioneers in terms of introducing more equitable workplace cultures – being innovative and forward thinking – by, for instance, offering something like ‘use it or lose it’ for paternity leave.”

A second area concerns how and where people work, says Hester: “For those who have not been forced to go into work, the pandemic has offered a real taste of the possible benefits of flexible and remote working. It saves people from wasting hours of their lives commuting back and forth.”

Hester cautions that remote and flexi working must not become a form of “work intensification by the back door”. She says: “The potential benefits need to be channelled in the right direction. Part of that is about engaging with your employee base and liaising with teams on how they feel they can maximise their autonomy within the working process.”

The third area Hester highlights is about infrastructure: “Think about the sort of infrastructure you can provide in terms of supporting care activities – how you can, for example, use office space and reconceptualise that to create a different kind of working environment.”

Autonomy’s report, The New Normal: A blueprint for remote working, envisions what a real culture shift in this area might look like, says Hester: “Could you have a baby-in-arms office – a room where parents of small children can bring their babies to work? Could you have an onsite nursery?

“This idea of changing the spaces in which people work is not just about those who have got massive offices and bags and bags of space to spare, though. It’s about changing the way we relate to working space and moving towards having shared working hubs – offering a really transformative vision of the kind of spaces in which work could be conducted.”

The Feminist Futures Programme offers training materials, media toolkits and gender audits for groups and organisations who are looking to critically assess and transform their institutional cultures in the name of more equitable working environments. To find out more about how it can support your organisation, visit Autonomy’s website: autonomy.work/ffp

To become a WorkL for Business network member and access all our webinars, as well as our insight reports and other exclusive services, visit our Business Network section: business.workl.co/workl-business-network

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