The clock is being rolled back on the lives of millions of working class women, with devastating long-term impacts, warn campaigners and parents.
Women are being pushed into poverty, singled out for redundancy or forced to give up work because of their caring responsibilities.
The full extent of the pressure of lockdown on women’s lives is only just beginning to be understood.
Millions of women have been expected to continue to work, either at home or outside it, while at the same time schools have been forced to shut their doors to most pupils and early years childcare was scaled back.
Catherine and her partner Tom have been unable to put their toddler Scarlett in childcare throughout lockdown—yet they’ve both had to work full time.
The impact this has had on my family has been huge—I’ve got friends with multiple children or single parents or who had a baby while in lockdown who are still at home wondering what they can do or can’t do. They’ve been completely forgotten about,” Catherine, a teacher living near Rotherham, told Socialist Worker.
She said, “The strain that has been put on parents and families has been forgotten.
“I’m delivering 22 lessons a week online and students are messaging you at all hours. What they’re not seeing is I’ve got a toddler hanging on to my leg.”
All this is happening in a context where Catherine argues teachers have been “vilified and demonised” by the press looking to point the blame at why schools aren’t operating at full capacity. “We never shut the school—I was even at work on Easter Monday,” she said.
“We’ve been let down by the politicians but my school has given out food boxes, laptops to students and installed routers in houses that don’t have internet.”
Early research shows that bosses are more likely to make carers redundant.
The Citizens Advice Bureau warned last week that two in five people with caring responsibilities—either for children or vulnerable adults—face redundancy.
The charity warned, “Those in more vulnerable circumstances are likely to bear the brunt,” such as retail worker Natalie.
She was made redundant after she was returning from furlough as childcare responsibilities made her unable to work more flexible hours.
“I’ve been so worried that I could lose my house,” she said.
“I’ve always worked and never been unemployed.
“This is quite a scary scenario. The thought of losing my home scares me. It would destroy me.”
This is all a familiar picture to Sarah Ronan, operations manager at Pregnant Then Screwed.
A landmark survey of 19,950 pregnant women and mothers by the maternity rights organisation reveals how livelihoods are being smashed apart by unscrupulous bosses.
It found that during the coronavirus crisis, pregnant women are being forced to use annual leave, take unpaid leave, or put on statutory sick pay.
But if pregnant women—who are in the medically vulnerable category—can’t be kept safe at work, they should be sent home on full pay, not forced to take these measures.
During the lockdown, some 15 percent of mothers have either been made redundant or expect to be made redundant. Of these, 46 percent have said a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy.
And Sarah said that there is a “whole set of wide ranging impacts” from the pandemic that activists are only just now beginning to unpick.
"You’ve got reduced working hours which is going to increase poverty—we’re very concerned about the impact on single parents around that. Really, there’s some serious consequences in terms of progress around women’s careers.”
Almost three quarters of working mothers have had to scale back their working hours to take care of their children.
This means a higher chance of poverty, a greater risk of being pushed out of the workplace entirely and reduced pension contributions.
And it’s affecting a huge number of women.Pregnant Then Screwed reported an 800 percent increase to its helpline in June, as parents struggled with advice about returning to work, safety in the workplace and flexitime requests.
But it’s not just about work. Many mothers are struggling because their social network has been dramatically stripped away from them.
Catherine describes many parents of young children as “constantly panicked” as they struggle to access services that are a lifeline. “There’s still no idea when parents’ groups, playgroups or libraries might open up again,” she said.
“We rely on these groups for our own wellbeing and sometimes it’s about seeing another mum who understands that you’ve been up four times last night.”
She said these services have been largely ignored by the government because, “Rhyme time, or a coffee morning in a church hall doesn’t generate enough money for them to see it as valuable.”
For all families across Britain, life looks nothing like it did in a pre-Covid world. Early research consistently suggests that women have taken on the vast majority of the extra domestic labour dumped on the laps of families.
Research by University College London found that women spent twice as much time as men on their children’s home schooling and development during lockdown. For mothers of primary age children, they spent on average seven hours each day on home schooling and developmental activity. The average for fathers was just 4 hours.
And it’s not just children. The Fawcett Society found that women were more likely than men to undertake additional caring such as checking on people self-isolating, contacting someone lonely or delivering supplies.
Why the difference between men and women? It’s not because of some biological difference.
And it’s not because men don’t want to look after their children.
Fathers performing less childcare than mothers is structured into the fabric of the working world in a sexist society.
The idea that women’s role to be primary care givers is deeply rooted in capitalist society and how the workforce is organised. It means that women are more likely to be paid less and to work part time—and this produces and is reinforced by sexist attitudes.
Sarah argues that the pandemic is “an opportunity to be really honest with ourselves.” She called on the government to protect parents legally from redundancies and extend the limit to take bad bosses to tribunals.
"We have been fed lip service policies, such as dads getting a couple of weeks of paternity leave. But employers have had decades to do the right thing and they’ve not done it,” she said.
Parents are struggling to keep their heads above water. It’s like the government just assumes that women will pay the price, suck it up and take the burden.”
Cracks in childcare system have been exposed in the crisis
Covid-19 has exploded the British childcare crisis that has simmered for decades. More and more parents are being told by the government and bosses to go back to work, but with no extra childcare support.
Boris Johnson pushed for more workplaces to reopen their doors from 1 August—in the middle of the school holidays—but with only a much reduced number of childcare places available.
Only a tiny fraction of holiday clubs are running throughout the holidays, partly because of confusing government guidance.
Government advice issued in July said clubs should only have consistent groups of up to 15 children. This was later relaxed, but many providers weren’t planning on setting up clubs for the school holidays.
And for some parents, childminders are too expensive for them. Travel agent Gemma says that local childminders have doubled the cost of care.
“I’m only on minimum wage anyway, so if and when I do go back to work and I have to start using a more expensive childminder it’s probably pointless me going to work for the day,” she said.
And industry experts are warning that further childcare crises are down the line.
A survey of childminders and nurseries revealed that one in four think they will be shut permanently within a year.
Sarah blasted the government’s promise of £660 million for the sector which she says “doesn’t even touch the sides.”
“If the government want childcare to bounce back then they need to treat childcare like the infrastructure it is.
“Transport for London quite rightly received a government bailout.
“But it needs to treat childcare like the infrastructure it is—if you’re a working parent you need childcare.”
It’s a deeply underfunded sector, relying on private companies to deliver care—but many are operating on slim margins.
Many childcare workers—of which 96 percent are women—are scraping by on poverty wages.
The Social Mobility Commission report revealed last week that one in eight childcare workers earn less than £5 an hour.
It warned that poor pay—the average wage in the sector is just £7.42 an hour—was leading to an increasingly insecure sector, with a high staff turnover.
Sarah said the way the childcare sector is structured is “a house of cards.”
"Childcare is capitalism 101—it’s leveraging the economic needs of one group of women against another group of women,” she said.
“The childcare sector is the arena where all this happens.”
Childcare is capitalism 101—it’s leveraging the economic needs of one group of women against another group of women
Sarah is hopeful that the coronavirus crisis—and the resulting childcare catastrophe—has created new opportunities for change.
"The conversation is more mainstream now,” she said. “The real danger of an issue like childcare is it gets seen as a women’s issue.”
It is possible for the government to provide huge levels of public support for childcare facilities at a time of national crisis.
Before the Second World War, there were barely any state-provided childcare options for working mothers.
But the need for women to enter the workforce changed that.
The government pushed through a huge expansion into day nurseries, allowing women to place their children there at a subsidised cost.
At some nurseries, clothes were supplied and laundered by the nursery and fed children three meals a day.
A similar project in Britain today would ease the burden of childrearing on women and allow them to re-enter the workforce after the pandemic has blown it apart.