'Childcare must be subsidised or women's lives will be just like the 1950s again'
Northern Ireland risks losing decades of progress around gender equality in the workplace due to the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.
The Equality Commission, networking organisation Women in Business and economists today warn that during the crisis, a lack of childcare for the children of working mothers has increased the risk of pushing society back to the 1950s.
Research into the effects of lockdown by Queen's University's School of Psychology points to women facing "burnout".
Economist Maureen O'Reilly said the Northern Ireland labour force survey had already reflected the departure of women from the workforce.
"The first signs of labour market impact from the Covid-19 crisis suggests that women are making up a larger share of both the fall in jobs but also the rise in economic inactivity - that is people who aren't in a job nor are actively looking for one," she said. "This is worrying, because almost a third of women aren't active in Northern Ireland's labour market already; looking after family/home being the main reason.
"We need to make sure this crisis doesn't take women out of the labour market who want to work, by understanding and addressing any barriers they face, childcare being an obvious one."
Writing in The Times last week, columnist Alice Thomson said women need to be able to go back to work and have their voices heard - and suggested within government would be a good start.
Calling for more female influence among the decision makers at Downing Street, she noted how, when Boris Johnson was hospitalised in April, four men shared his brief.
Nor did childcare feature in Chancellor Rishi Sunak's mini- budget earlier this month.
Roseann Kelly, chief executive of Women in Business, said many of the women entrepreneurs making up her membership had seen their business and income stop. Even when work was available for members, they were unable to accept it due to childcare availability issues.
Mrs Kelly said she feared that with schools likely to only partially reopen - and childcare facilities facing an uncertain future as the need for social distancing affected their financial viability - mothers might again have to cut back on work commitments to take care of children.
"If our government is really genuine about diversity and the importance of it to the economy, they, and employers, really need to look at subsidising childcare," she said. "Things could go back to the 1950s, where women have to be at home looking after children as there were no facilities for childcare.
"It could very easily slip back for women if they are working from home or having to go part-time - all of those unconscious bias and barriers will be accentuated."
Queen's University lecturer Dr Ioana Latu said research has uncovered evidence of pressure on women as they juggled working from home and caring for children, including home-schooling.
Dr Latu, an assistant professor, said that a crisis such as a pandemic tended to make existing inequalities worse.
She said: "In a pilot study on the general population, initial findings show that both men and women spent less time working during the pandemic than before it, but women spent more time on caregiving responsibilities whereas men spent more time on hobbies.
"Also, a larger model showed that spending more time on housework, especially for women, and caregiving responsibilities - for both men and women in this case - led to greater work/family conflict which in turn led to more burnout.
"In turn, burnout led to lower career outcomes such as weaker career progression intentions, lower career self-efficacy, and lower career aspirations."
The pandemic has brought many anxieties to the fore for parents, particularly working mothers.
The Equality Commission said that of the Covid-19-related sex discrimination enquiries it has received, half related to childcare issues. These have included employees being asked to return to work where there was no childcare available, and employers refusing furlough or working from home requests to accommodate childcare.
Pregnant employees have also contacted the Equality Commission with concerns around being required to attend the workplace where the employee feels it is unsafe to do so, and where they have had a request to be furloughed refused.
Some who have been returning from maternity leave have said that while colleagues were given an option to work from home at the start of the pandemic, they themselves are now being asked to come in.
In conversations with mothers about the future of their working lives, one woman told the Belfast Telegraph that she feared that if gaps in childcare persist even after schools return, women could be at greater risk of redundancy because of the assumption that full-time hours will no longer suit them.
Children - apart from those of key workers - have been schooled at home since the pandemic due to the closure of schools. Creches and other childcare facilities have been also closed, leaving working parents, whose jobs have continued uninterrupted during the crisis, facing the pressure of combining looking after their children while also working.
Roisin Mallon, a senior policy officer at the Equality Commission, said it has been calling for a gender pay strategy from the Executive, which would require large public sector and private and voluntary sector employers to publish information on gender pay gaps.
"The lack of childcare provision impacts women disproportionally and lone parents (who are predominately women) are likely to be particularly affected," she explained. "Further, for some employees there may now be a need for new or modified flexible working arrangements due to changes in circumstances."
It is challenging, juggling working and my child.
A self-employed mother of a four-year-old daughter who predominantly works from home.
“My husband is a key worker so he’s been going into work while I’ve been at home with our daughter. There have been times where I’ve said to him, ‘you’re so lucky going into work’. But he says to me: “It’s not like it’s a spa weekend! I’m going into work’.
“It is challenging, juggling working and my child. Some weeks I have been so busy, it’s felt like my head was going to explode.
“On the stressful days, I did keep thinking, ‘we are lucky, we have our health’. But it has been challenging, trying to pacify a child, with extra fruit, Pringles and marshmallows.
“I laughed when I saw the child come into their mum on TV to ask for two biscuits. Kids know full well that a parent on a work call is their opportune time to ask for a packet of crisps. Thank God for the mute button.
“But people are so understanding. With everything going on, hundreds of people have lost their lives, they don’t mind being interrupted by your kids.
“With my husband a frontline worker, there was no question that he was going to be going to work while I was at home.
”It’s been a challenging more than a negative and a lot of it would be mum guilt that I’m still trying to work whereas if I was on furlough, I would have had 100% of my time to give.
“But in the grand scheme of things, I feel so lucky. There have been some lovely times and it’s been all about making the most of it.”
You have kids who would have been practically non verbal, now communicating and interacting better with siblings.
A stay-at-home mother of two young children who works part-time from home. Her partner has worked full-time from home during the pandemic.
“What I’ve found from some WhatsApp groups I’m on would be parents commenting on how much their kids who would have additional needs have come on in this time spent at home with mum and dad.
“You have kids who would have been practically non verbal, now communicating and interacting better with siblings.
“I think it’s also made me realise how much time we spend running to things and actually the kids are more than happy to play at home. There is definitely also been more reflection and how it is stuff like time with the grandparents that matters most.
“But it has been hard too. I don’t think I’d realised how much I got done during the hours my child was at school. Having the parks closed too has also been tough because no ‘play dates’ but with no space for kids to play,
“Another pro of everything is that I think it’s proved flexible working can work. I’m hoping my partner has demonstrated he doesn’t need to be in the office so will be able to do more from home. He’s got to spend lots more time with the kids which is so nice. Also with all the kids popping up on zoom calls it’s kind of taking parenting out from behind closed doors. It’s okay to be a parent and working. I remember my mum telling me that when she had to go back to work when I was six weeks old, she felt she couldn’t even talk about me at work because the attitude would have been that she shouldn’t have her head elsewhere, she should be focused on work.”
Home-schooling is impossible.
A mother of two children, aged seven and three, who works full-time hours from home. Her husband has been shielding.
“Home-schooling is impossible. I think anyone who works has found it impossible to do home-schooling. I know I have - you can’t do both jobs properly.
“In my case, my daughter’s home-schooling has suffered and I’m very concerned next year that if she only goes back two days a week and the rest of schooling is left to me, I’m seriously concerned about the effect that will have on her education.
“I’ve been working more than full-time hours from home. Normally we could have availed of childcare as my husband’s a key worker but because he’s been shielding, we’ve had the children with us 24/7.
“After this length of time, it’s definitely affecting the children, without a doubt. My son gets excited when he sees the postman as he hasn’t had any contact with outside world for four months.
“We’ve seen my parents but only from the outside of their house with no contact as my mother is shielding. And as I’m the only one not shielding, I’m doing all the shopping, as well as my work, as well as the schooling.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me because of my type of work, you don’t know if you’ll have a job in a month. So for me, I’m feeling under a lot of pressure to work when the work is there.
“I’m very, very anxious. I feel sick constantly, about what the future holds. Between now and schools going back, things could clear a bit or it could be worse.
“But I think all parents who are home-schooling, you feel like you are failing your children and letting them down because none of us are teachers, after all.
“But having more time together as a family has been really nice though it’s starting to wear a bit thin as my husband is shielding and other people are able to do things a family that we can’t.
“We haven’t had time alone in over four months.
“Any time I’ve been getting out it’s going to Tesco to get food and it’s going into a stressful environment of trying to shop, trying to stay safe, stay away from people as whatever happens, I can’t bring the virus home.
“I feel really under pressure and really anxious.”