“Why aren’t the men doing any home-schooling?” complains a manager at a large UK financial institution. She reports that women team members with children are more likely to skip video calls or ask for deadline extensions than males. Amid fresh lockdowns, working mothers have often taken primary responsibility for childcare and home schooling within heterosexual two-parent families.
Coronavirus has hurt the incomes and prospects of many of these women. Mothers are more likely to go on furlough or quit altogether, according to a study last year by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies. Those that continue working may miss out on raised salaries and promotions if their performance is impaired by domestic duties. “We are unpicking 40 years of progress towards gender parity,” warns Sarah Jackson, visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management.
The negative male stereotype is of a man who bags the spare room as a home office in which to hide from his kids. “I’ve outsourced home-schooling to the X-Box,” chortles a male lawyer, playing up to such preconceptions. But how accurate are these?
Alison Andrew, a senior IFS research economist, says in the last lockdown mothers spent 60 per cent more time than men with children who were doing schoolwork. National Statistics identified a slimmer margin. But when the statisticians lumped all childcare categories together, mothers spent 70 per cent longer with the kids.
Since 1997, the UK gender pay gap has fallen from 27.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent. Female employment has risen from around 50 per cent in the 1970s to more than 70 per cent. Lockdowns may retard these trends among working mothers.
Some adherents to classical economics imagined that as the pay gap eroded, men would contribute more domestically. But even when a woman earns more than a male partner, she still tends to spend longer on childcare and housework, studies show.
Behaviours instilled by nurture or nature — the choice depends on your prejudices — evidently run deep. “Mothers are the default parents,” says Ms Andrew. “It is harder for them to protect their working time.”
Employers cannot interfere in workers’ home lives. But they can treat the coronavirus years as exceptional, making allowances for frazzled parents. And they can ensure that in any brave post-pandemic world of downsized offices and working from anywhere, female staff with children are not left permanently marooned at home.
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