Mothers were and are more likely to lose their jobs (47% more likely), cut back their hours and struggle to return to full-time work, largely as a result of the increased childcare burden brought on by the pandemic. The Fawcett Society predicts that it will now take an extra 30 years for women to achieve pay parity with men.
Mothers are literally being left to hold the baby. It’s a truly bleak scenario.
At the same time though, lockdown planted a seed that if nurtured has the potential to spawn a much more positive reality for working mums, and everyone else for that matter:
As a result of the pandemic, Dads have been doing more childcare than ever before.
Lockdown meant that many of us dads were spending all of our time at home, and whilst evidently it’s not yet proportionate enough, we are taking on more childcare responsibility than we were pre-pandemic (double the amount according to the IFS). And like the 5am eye-poke of your bed-invading two year old, it’s woken dads up to three things in particular.
Childcare is incredibly hard
Firstly, spending hours a day, dressing, entertaining, schooling, arguing and cooking for the kids is more gruelling, tiring and mentally draining than work. No question. No debate. I’ve heard of superstar salesmen used to closing major business deals without breaking a sweat, being reduced to tears by their four-year old daughter who just won’t wear those socks.
Work-life balance takes flexibility
Secondly, we’ve learned that being incredibly dedicated to our jobs, whilst also being there enough for our families doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. It requires some flexibility and the right support, but you absolutely can do both.
Family contact is an important part of wellbeing
And thirdly, most importantly, lockdown reacquainted many men with the joy that only time with our kids brings to our day. It is a powerful joy and meaning that cannot be replicated or beaten. It doesn’t depend on spending all day every day with our children, but even just a few dinners, bedtimes and school pick-ups a week. This, compared to barely seeing them awake at all between Monday and Friday – a scenario that many fathers (and their exhausted partners) have become all too accustomed to.
If lockdown leads to a sustained increase in men taking on more childcare duties both because of our belated but enhanced appreciation of just how hard it is, and because of how much it improves our mental wellbeing, then the direct impact on working mums will be both obvious and hugely positive.
Changing what it means to be a working dad
By definition, fathers are grown men and we each have the power and responsibility to ensure that our recent and fulfilling foray into doing more childcare doesn’t end up on the lockdown-fad scrapheap like Zoom quiz nights.
But we need help, too, in ridding society and workplaces of the inexplicable stigma that still exists around fathers opting to do more at home. We knew before lockdown that the uptake of paternity leave in this country is a pitiful 2%. Even in places like Denmark, where paternity leave is enforced and at full pay, take up is still only 10%.
“Even in places like Denmark, where paternity leave is enforced and at full pay, take up is still only 10%.This is because for many men, proactively seeking to better balance work with family makes them feel less of a man.”
This is because for many men, proactively seeking to better balance work with family makes them feel less of a man. In this day and age it sounds absurd saying it out loud, but it’s true.
At Bubble, our own research showed that 84% of UK parents believe that society still sees childcare as a “woman’s job” and 67% of parents also believe fathers do less childcare because of the stigma that still surrounds it.
It’s why we don’t take paternity leave, don’t ask to work flexibly and don’t insist on arriving slightly later or leaving work earlier so that we can take and fetch our kids from school. It’s why we constantly deprive ourselves, our kids and their mothers of many small yet life-affirming moments because of “urgent” or “vital” business, that in reality is not even close to either. Especially when judged against the opportunity cost of what we’re giving up.
As we emerge from Covid, if the government and companies are serious about levelling the gender playing field at work, as well as simply making their people happier and more productive, they need to attack this stigma head on. We need new policies, but much more importantly, we need to foster environments where it’s not just tolerated for fathers to spend more time with their families, but it is actively encouraged – and even insisted upon.
This would include things like longer and mandatory full-pay paternity leave, standardised flexible working and more expansive childcare support, as well as company bosses simply leading by example to show they will always put their family first.
It is to our shame that it’s taken a global pandemic to bring better – but by no means perfect – equality at home. However it got here, what we do now has the potential to bring about long lasting equality in the workplace. And if we’re not going to make it so for our sake, then we should do it for our brilliant partners, sisters and daughters. They deserve so much more.
Ari Last is a father of three and Founder of Bubble, the UK’s biggest platform for on-demand childcare and trusted family support.