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Coronavirus putting women’s careers at risk

Employers must shift focus from helping just mothers to helping parents and do more to address inequality at home if diversity initiatives are to be successful

Although it was hoped that men also having to work during the lockdown would normalise flexible working and equalise the domestic load at home, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and UCL Institute of Education, shows that working mothers are now 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit and 14% more likely to be furloughed.

This is in no small part due to the fact that mothers are bearing the burden of childcare and homeschooling, looking after children for an average of 10.3 hours a day (2.3 hours more than fathers) and doing 1.7 more hours of housework than fathers. Meaning, on average, they can only do one hour of uninterrupted paid work for every three hours done by men.

But why, at a time when a third of women are the ‘breadwinners’ for their families, does society still expect mothers to bear the burden of caring for and homeschooling children?

In many cases, families will attempt to justify this on the grounds that the mother is ‘already working part-time anyway,’ ‘is better with the children’ or ‘has fewer virtual meetings to attend during the working day.’

Unfortunately, the reality is that more often than not, women have allowed themselves to slip into stereotypical roles, without questioning whether or not the load could be shared more evenly and fairly with their partner, if they have one.

Eliminate ‘daddy discrimination’

The extent to which the lockdown is disproportionately affecting women’s careers is all the more unfortunate because most men typically want to become more involved in their children’s lives.

They want to have a better work-life balance but have themselves slipped into ‘traditional roles’, been ridiculed by colleagues for wanting to help out more at home or had their requests for flexible working turned down.

With the usual childcare options of school, holiday clubs or grandparents no longer available, there is now a golden opportunity for men to ask for the opportunity to flex their hours in a way that might not have been considered possible or socially acceptable before the crisis.

Normally, achieving this sort of culture change would take years, if not decades to achieve, or require the appointment of a new CEO. But the disruption caused by the exceptional circumstances generated by the coronavirus can now provide the impetus needed, in much the same way that the Second World War made it acceptable for women to work.

Get managers on board

Critical to encouraging men to play a more active role at home is shifting the focus from supporting ‘mothers’ to supporting ‘parents’. Plus providing men with the same support on how to have conversations around working flexibly with their manager, typically only provided to working mothers at the moment.

Managers must be encouraged to role-model living a more balanced life themselves, because it’s only once people see those individuals responsible for their job security, pay and promotion fitting work around their lives, instead of life around work, that they will feel safe to do this also.

Managers must also be encouraged to assess everyone’s performance according to clear outcomes and targets, linked to overall business objectives, instead of the number of hours they’re putting in.

Not only will this make both women and men feel more comfortable working in the ways now required, it will also boost productivity to help rebuild the economy and ensure women don’t come out of this crisis at an unnecessary disadvantage.

Helen Letchfield is co-founder of Parent & Professional