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The COVID-19 crisis is having multiple and profound impacts on our lives, one of which is the way care is shared within households, but will it hasten us towards equality or further entrench traditional gender roles? Worryingly, the evidence suggests that we are going backwards, but this can be reversed with the right policy response from government.

The amount of time fathers spend per day caring for children has increased by 15-20 minutes per day each decade since the 1970s, but pre-COVID-19, inequality persisted. The UK Time Use Survey shows that mothers with children aged 16 or under spent on average 118 minutes per day doing childcare work, compared with 67 minutes per day for fathers. 

Since lockdown began, Cambridge academics found that mothers working from home were spending over 3.5 hours on childcare, compared with around 2.5 hours for men; while both mothers and fathers were spending around two hours on home-schooling, with mothers doing a little more. Overall this results in a 1.5-hour difference, suggesting a widening gap. 

We have also seen Institute for Fiscal Studies research which found that the time mothers spent on childcare had doubled when compared with 2014-15. Importantly, their time is more interrupted – they were combining paid work with other activities half the time, compared with a third for fathers. 

Other research shows that a third of mothers, compared to a quarter of fathers, report always feeling rushed and found that mothers’ time is more fragmented. Prior to the outbreak, research identified that women who worked from home tended to do more childcare, while men tended to do more overtime.

Fawcett’s own survey, in partnership with the Women’s Budget Group and academics from LSE and Queen Mary University, found that mothers in couples were over one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to say that they were doing the majority of childcare during school and nurseries closures. 

This disparity rises between parents who work outside the home, suggesting that ‘key worker’ status does not alleviate women’s childcare workload. These inequalities also hold for other domestic work, with three quarters of mothers in couples and nine out of ten single mothers, compared with half of fathers in couples, agreeing that they were doing the majority of tasks.

There is no doubt that school and nursery closures have had a significant impact on how families are sharing care, with mothers feeling the impact more profoundly than fathers. Existing inequalities are driving couples’ responses to what is a period of stress. This is having an impact on maternal employment with early evidence suggesting mothers were more likely to have been furloughed and also more likely to have lost their jobs during the crisis.

As the furlough scheme ends and the Government tells us to get back to our workplaces it will disproportionately be mothers who feel unable to do that, potentially creating a two tier workforce. Employers are left in the invidious position of getting their businesses back to work, favouring those employees who can do that or supporting parents who find it difficult to return. 

As schools return it will disproportionately be mothers who will be expected to interrupt  their work when the suspected COVID-19 cases in school sends the whole class, or year  group, home. It took a whole 20 years to get maternal employment rates up from 66% to 75%. We are now reversing that in just a few months.

Embracing home and flexible working is at least part of the solution for many of us, although there will always be jobs which cannot be done from home.  Incidentally, those frontline jobs are also more likely to be done by women. I have long argued for default flexible working, the presumption that every job is a flexible one unless there is a business case for it not to be. COVID-19 has created that presumption for us.

If this crisis has illustrated anything, it demonstrates that we need to do much more to support couples to share care, enabling fathers to play a more active role in the first year of a child’s life. This means a longer, better paid period of leave for fathers which dads can afford to take, starting from a presumption of equal parenting responsibility. If we had introduced this policy ten years ago, perhaps we would be seeing a more equal sharing of care now, rather than the work still falling heavily on the mothers’ shoulders.  

Finally, we need a strategic investment in our childcare infrastructure, recognising that childcare is a vital part of the support system enabling parents to work. 

Pre-COVID-19 childcare provision was inadequate, with only 56% of local authorities providing sufficient childcare places for parents who work full-time. We expect to see provision decline significantly as a result of a drop in demand during the current COVID-19 crisis. Take up of early years places has fallen from 77% pre-COVID-19 to 37% during COVID-19. Many childcare providers simply won’t survive without additional government funding. 

This is economic madness and will undermine our recovery. Evidence shows that maternal employment can be boosted significantly with the availability of free, full-time childcare, particularly if provision is available for pre-school age children. This would boost our economic recovery and support maternal employment, helping to reverse current worrying trends which are taking us in the wrong direction.

The COVID-19 crisis, although unwelcome, presents us with the opportunity to finally get the sharing of care right and put the policy response in place which families, employers and the economy need. We have to seize that opportunity.

Sam Smethers is the Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Family friendly?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Standsome Worklifestyle]