After more fatal dither and delay, all schools will close today, leaving many parents floundering.
Mothers, especially single mothers, were more likely to do more home schooling than fathers in the first lockdown, with consequences for their own working time. And the impact of the first lockdown on women’s employment has now been laid bare.
Mothers did 50% more unpaid work than fathers during this time, according to a large Institute for Fiscal Studies survey from May 2020. More of their time was disrupted by childcare responsibilities and, potentially as a result, mothers were one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit by May. They were also more likely to have been furloughed, seeing their earnings cut by 20%.
This tallies with a 40,000 household study from the University College London which found that women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April, increasing to 22.5 hours in May. For men, the figure was 12 hours per week for each month. These findings were also echoed by the Office of National Statistics.
The government must act immediately to protect the wellbeing of children and parents, learning lessons from last year.
The impact on children’s attainment, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not be able to afford a laptop for online learning or have parents with the option to home school is also clear: evidence now shows that the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children has widened, while a Runnymede Trust survey found that BAME parents were struggling more than white parents.
The evidence from the first lockdown is clear that closing schools saw mothers more likely to spend more time on childcare and home schooling, more likely to have interrupted work time and, more likely to be furloughed. Scientific advisors, teaching staff and unions now also agree that closing the schools is the only option to stem the increase in coronavirus cases. This will protect more women’s health too, because of the overrepresentation of women working in education – although women working in early years care will not receive such security.
So, what should the government do differently this time to avoid turning back the clock on gender equality with children at home?
First of all, as the Trade Union Congress have called for, all parents need the right to be furloughed. Currently, childcare is a valid reason to request to be furloughed but, it is not something employees have a right to. This is a crucial difference, which means that, at the moment, a single parent with children at home could have their request for furlough declined, leaving them in an impossible position. Enshrining a right to be furloughed ensures it is parents, not employers, who can make decisions about their needs.
Having kids at home is also expensive: there are more meals to provide and more rooms to heat. Online learning requires access to a laptop and quality internet which government schemes have failed to deliver across the board. Raising child benefit to £50 a week per child would help ensure children are warm and fed while schools are closed. This also means lifting the two-child limit so that all children are protected. Ministers should make the £20 uplift to Universal Credit permanent to ensure those already out of work can care for children at home.
With women more likely to be furloughed and, at higher risk of redundancy due to difficultly juggling work and childcare, there is also a serious long-term risk of a decrease in women’s employment and an increase in the gender pay gap, especially with pay gap reporting suspended for a second year.
The government often heralds its success at getting more women in work than ever before but to keep this up, drastic action is needed. The all party group on Women and Work, chaired by MPs Jess Phillips and Laura Farris, has suggested that all companies who would have been reporting their gender pay gap next month, instead report who they are making redundant by protected characteristics, like sex, race and age. This would, at the very least, provide a measure of accountability.
It’s a frightening time for parents and children alike. Most agree that closing the schools is the only option to protect staff, students and their families. But doing so without taking adequate measures to protect parents will see women especially losing out on income and influence at work.
2020 was a year prompting serious concern from gender equality campaigners about women’s role at home and at work, especially poorer and disabled women. In 2021, the government must learn those lessons to avoid another year of inequality and chaos.
Jenna Norman is Public Affairs Officer at Women’s Budget Group