CRED blog series - Crisis and the sharing of caring: current dangers and future possibilities
By Sarah Marks, Maria Adamson and Claire English
Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, School of Business and Management
Queen Mary, University of London
The Covid-19 lockdown has demanded a rapid reorganisation of work in and around the home. For many who have been fortunate to retain jobs, this crisis represents an unparalleled situation where the workplace has ‘moved into’ peoples’ homes alongside childcare and household responsibilities. Studies show home-based remote working before the pandemic was highly gendered, and emerging anecdotal and diary evidence suggests that the caring burden during the crisis has fallen unequally on women (Feruguson, 2020).
A real danger exists that if employers are not sensitive to the gendered dynamics of managing homeworking and childcare responsibilities, this crisis will significantly exacerbate already existing gender inequalities and the pay gap – both in terms of women’s immediate well-being, ability to carry out their work and future career progression. Moreover, as the provision of paid-for childcare is unlikely to return to the levels seen before COVID-19 anytime soon, and many more workers are now facing extended caring demands due to shielding family or community members, the care crisis, far from shrinking, is magnified in lockdown and beyond. Yet, in disrupting working patterns based around the unencumbered (male) worker (Acker, 2006), the pandemic also provides an exceptional opportunity to recognise the importance of care work and address it’s gendered nature and implications
We see the key to turning dangers into opportunities as twofold: 1) recognising and addressing the gendered division of caring responsibilities; and 2) improving the provision of childcare. Both ends of the “problem” require action from central and local government, employers, individuals and communities.
We set out a series of bold and radical suggestion that should be incorporated into the unfolding easing of lockdown measures that address the underlying imbalance in caring work which underpins and maintains social inequalities.
- Employers must act to protect the equality and diversity agenda in the homeworking era by recognising and mediating potential gendered impact of these arrangements
- Coordinate alternate and staggered office and other work around school timetables or home-school and childcare responsibilities for all parents.
- Support alternative forms of communal care-giving such as parent-run nurseries, and expanded council provision.
Acting to protect equality
Research shows that women working from home tend to organise their work schedules around children’s schedules. Men also experience challenges but tend to have longer concentrated stretches of worktime as female partners tend to shield them from interruptions (Lewis and Sullivan, 2001; Hilbrecht et al. 2008). Moreover, single parent families are far more likely to be headed by women than men, who must now take on all home-schooling and childcare as well as squeezing in paid work. This can unequally burden women’s mental health and well-being and, if overwork is encouraged when homeworking, lead to a motherhood penalty as women without children and men (with or without children) are able to put in long hours when working from home (Chung and van der Horst, 2018). It is also important to take an intersectional view: women from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be living in crowded, multigenerational households where cultural expectations may impinge on their ability to prioritise work over family.
We suggest that the opportunity here for employers is to draw on these insights and act early. It is unreasonable to expect any parent to provide uninterrupted labour 9-5 from the home under the current lockdown circumstances. Adopting a sensitive and gender-informed strategy of managing the workforce during and post-crisis will help reduce both the burden on households, avoid potential deepening of gender inequalities in the aftermath of the crisis. Measures like adjusting work demands, conducting gender audits when making performance-related decisions, and embracing but systematically monitoring the impact of flexible work on employees can help ensure equality of career opportunities, increase employee loyalty, and improve well-being, thus ensuring sustainable organisational productivity post-crisis.
Coordinate staggered work patterns around school time-tables
Any return to work for parents is dependent on reliable and affordable childcare. Grandparents who may be shielding, will not be an option, resulting in more pressure on external providers. A likely government-ordinated staggered return to work offers an opportunity for a radical rethink on shared responsibility for caring for children and other family/community members. Many large companies will be asked to split their entire workforces into 2 or 3, red/blue teams to work alternate weeks at the home and office, or early and late shifts to reduce workplace physical contact and ease transport congestions.
We suggest that national and local governments should consider mandating schools and nurseries to synchronize openings and timetables with office, retail and other service providers. Thus, the whole nation, or geographic areas, would be on red or blue week (many schools timetable on a fortnightly basis anyway). Extended beyond lockdown easing, these new working patterns based around school timetables could ease the enormous logistical issue for parents, create more family time, ensure substantial cost savings in pre and after school care, and would be well supported by many companies wishing to reduce office expenditure.
Support alternative forms of childcare
Nearly half of childminders expect to stay closed for up to a year following the pandemic, and nearly a third think it is unlikely they will reopen at all (Gaunt, 2020). Many private nurseries, struggling before Covid-19, are also likely to fold while, state funded provision (through nurseries attached to local schools) are only open until 3:30pm, making them an impossible option for many working parents.
We suggest that setting up co-operative nurseries where the parents are involved in the running of the nursery is one possible way out of the current crisis in UK Childcare. One example is Grasshoppers in the Park Nursery in east London, a parent run co-operative where all parents make a practical contribution, like shopping, mending equipment, helping in the nursery itself, or organising fund raising events. Parents who are unable to commit this time do have the option of paying a co-op contribution instead.
We suggest that, following the work of the New Economics Foundation, a number of further measures could fundamentally improve the supply and provision of childcare. Firstly, removing the guidance in the 2006 Childcare Bill that restricts the role of local authorities in providing childcare; secondly giving local authorities the right to buy existing nurseries at point of sale, thirdly incentivising a shift to worker-owned provision by introducing a worker buy-out option at the point of sale of nurseries, fourthly, stopping the sale of public nurseries on the open market and increasing investment in maintained nurseries to ensure they are able to develop and expand provision. Finally, more work-place based nurseries/childcare schemes to reduce parents travel journeys. Early years provision in the UK is also among the most expensive in the world, parents pay an average of 27 per cent of their wages on childcare costs (Family and Childcare Trust 2019). Most private nurseries operate in an environment of sporadic funding models that rely on paying minimum wage, requiring their staff (usually women) to work long hours with increasing numbers of children to care for.
This is a once in a life-time opportunity to take bold and radical action and reset working patterns that improves social justice and lessens inequalities rather than sustains them.
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Acker, J.(2006) Inequality Regimes : Gender, Class, and Race in Organizations. Gender & Society, 20 (4) 441-464
Chung, H., & Van der Horst, M. (2018). Flexible working and unpaid overtime in the UK: The role of gender, parental and occupational status. Social Indicators Research. https://doi.org/10.1007/s1120 5-018-2028-7
Ferguson, D Guardian Newspaper, I feel like a 1950s Housewife: How Lockdown has exposed the gender divide, the Guardian newspaper, 3rd May 2020
Gaunt, (2002) Nursery World: Coronavirus, nearly half of childminders could stay closed for up to a year,
Hilbrecht, M., Shaw, S. M., Johnson, L. C., & Andrey, J. (2008). ‘I'm home for the kids’: contradictory implications for work–life balance of teleworking mothers. Gender, Work & Organization, 15(5), 454-476.
Peters, P., Den Dulk, L., & Van der Lippe, T. (2009). The effects of time-spatial flexibility and new working conditions on employees’ work–life balance: The Dutch case. Community, Work & Family, 12(3), 279–297.
Sullivan, C., & Lewis, S. (2001). Home‐based telework, gender, and the synchronization of work and family: perspectives of teleworkers and their co‐residents. Gender, Work & Organization, 8(2), 123-145.