In the UK’s lockdown spring, Capital Economics’ Jennifer McKeown found herself juggling her job and the new roles of “teacher, entertainer, cook and cleaner” overnight. “It was extremely difficult. You just constantly feel guilt about either not being with the children... or about not doing your job.” For all that pressure on working mothers, McKeown was at least “grateful” she still had a job. Others have been far less fortunate.
From home working to booming online sales, the great truism is of Covid-19 as an economic and social accelerator, ushering forth years of progress in months. But when it comes to women in the workforce, economists fear the accelerator is stuck firmly in reverse, despite all the talk of “levelling up” Britain.
Critics of a government, whose senior echelons are entirely dominated by men, bemoan a lack of focus on a childcare crisis exacerbating the strain on women, with MP Caroline Nokes flagging the issue as the “big elephant in the room”. Abi Adams-Prassl, an economist at the University of Oxford, warns: “An absence of clear policy statements has been quite stark.”
The problem is urgent though. Previous recessions have been “man-cessions”, hitting men far more sharply than women in the labour market. In the early Nineties, the male unemployment rate hit 12.7pc, compared to 8pc for females. After the financial crisis, 9pc of men were out of work at the peak, compared to 7.8pc of women.
But in the Covid slump, the pain has been shared more equally due to the acute sectoral focus of a pandemic which shuttered shops, bars and restaurants.
Resolution Foundation figures show women outnumbering men by more than two to one in leisure and travel roles, and by almost as much in retail and customer services jobs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that women are around a third more likely to work in affected sectors than men.
Men are slightly more likely to get Covid than women, but women are more likely to suffer economically from it.
Furlough has come to the rescue for many, even if some furloughs have been more equal than others.
According to research, women are less likely to have had their wages topped up by employers, mainly due to their presence in lower-wage and less secure industries. For women working through the pandemic, the pressure has also been just as acute, as they shouldered around two thirds of the childcare duties while schools and nurseries were shut.
Sarah Smith, economics professor at the University of Bristol, says: “You can see permanent effects from even a temporary impact on your ability to work. In academia, for example, there is evidence that women are less likely to be submitting papers for pre-publication at the moment.”
The issue is far from limited to the UK. Consultant McKinsey’s latest study of women in the workplace, focused on America, warns that they are leaving the workforce at far higher rates than men for the first time in six years, and as many as 2m are considering taking a leave of absence or dropping out altogether.
“Among mothers who are thinking about down-shifting or leaving, a majority cite childcare responsibilities as a primary reason,” McKinsey says.
Experts agree fixing childcare is the pivotal ingredient in readdressing the damaging gender impact of Covid.
Worryingly for the UK, however, the sector is on its knees. Around 1.4m zero to four-year-olds were in childcare before the pandemic, but that dropped to 250,000 in lockdown.
A survey by the Early Years Alliance this summer found that 69pc of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders expect to operate at a loss over the next six months, with 25pc “likely” to close within a year.
Smith says more funding is needed for childcare as a “key element of social infrastructure”, while Adams-Prassl agrees that the finances of many providers are “threadbare”.
While female employment has jumped from 57pc to nearly 73pc over the past 30 years, she worries that the clock is in danger of being turned back: “The lack of a childcare strategy is a huge issue when you think of the labour market crisis now.
“Unless there is strong policy action, I am worried that it could undo decades of progress. I think this is a quite precarious moment for gender equality in the labour market.”