The 1950’s called and they want their gender stereotypes back please

COVID-19 has exposed many things that is making all of us rethink the way in which we live and work.

One key aspect that COVID has exposed is the impact it’s having on different groups, according to their protected characteristics. It’s fair to say that women and men are experiencing Covid-19 differently despite the fact this is a global health pandemic.

For a lot of women, they’ve suddenly found themselves with additional burdens to what was already an existing fine balance between home and work. For gender equality in the workplace to really work, gender equality has to start at home. Men need to be given the space to be equal partners at home with no stigma or negative career impact.

This means that there needs to be more equal sharing of domestic duties, child care, including the mental load of raising a family, the emotional labour of planning and tracking activities as well as supporting a partner’s career.

So how is Covid-19 playing out with the gender division of labour?

Raising expectations of mothers

When it was announced in the UK that schools were going to be closed due to the global pandemic parents up and down the country with suddenly thrown into a complete panic. Stress levels were going through the roof. Parents were asking themselves how were they going to cope with home-schooling as well as holding down their jobs. But who was asking these questions?  Primarily women.

The charity Working Families have reported a spike in calls for their free legal services with accounts of women being told that if they can’t manage working around their children, they should just take unpaid leave. Furlough has been brought in as an option to keep the economy and workers going during this crisis, but if not applied through a gender lens there could be big gender repercussions.

Furlough for childcare reasons – initially this seems like a good idea, but it poses problems further down the line. Furlough for childcare reasons should be the last resort not the first option. Employers should instead look for ways to be more flexible and accommodating of work expectations during this pandemic.

What is the future impact of furlough? Will those who’ve taken it for childcare reasons be more at risk of redundancy? Or less likely to be promoted in the future because of the gap in their work contribution? Or denied an expected pay rise in future? Or overlooked for lucrative projects and responsibility opportunities? If women are to be encouraged to take furlough for childcare reasons these are the things that needs to be considered as this could be a form of delayed gender discrimination even if this isn’t the intention.

Reverting to male breadwinner stereotypes

Schools are out, but somebody has to look after the kids. While said we have no hard data to analyse to see who is doing the bulk of domestic work and school work, it is fair to say that it is more than likely it’s going to be women who are picking up the tab of this unpaid work. In a recent US survey, nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling but only 3% of women agree. The perception of who is doing what and who should be doing what is really important here.

For male partners who can work at home, they’re under pressure in two distinct ways.

First – to keep the money coming into the household for obvious reasons and if they are the family breadwinner this makes economic sense. However, this set up is inadvertently going back to a rigid 1950s style of gendered labour division despite it 2020.

Second – men will be pressured to go along with being the breadwinner as employers assume, or expect, them to be available as if there wasn’t a global pandemic that’s affecting the way in which everybody works.   There is anecdotal evidence to show that men are feeling under to pressure to work all the hours given but are feeling guilty that their partners are left supervising children and trying to hold down their own jobs. Some couples have been able to work out a shared timetable to manage home and work between them in a more equitable way, but this isn’t the case for most families.

The game of ‘whose career is more important’

Dual career families today are not uncommon, but Covid-19 has brought the issues of how to manage both careers in a time of flux into the light. Many couples up and down the country will be having conversations around how they can manage both careers staying on track in addition to managing domestic responsibilities without any outside help from nurseries, schools, childminders etc.

These conversations are two sides of the same coin. Firstly, couples have to agree between them how they will manage their career whilst doing their domestic responsibilities. Secondly, they’ll need to have ongoing conversations with both of their employers to figure out how to make it work. As we know some employers understand why flexible work is beneficial whilst others even during this pandemic still don’t.

In a conversation about this I was told by one woman that her employer said that is not their fault “if she can’t convince her husband of the importance of her job.” This displays poor leadership from the employer but it does highlight the problem that people are facing in trying to navigate home and work during Covid-19. It also highlights employers’ attitudes around not willing to be flexible in supporting their stuff to manage as best as they can through this crisis. At best this attitude shows a lack of empathy and common sense and at worst it demonstrates deep rooted sexist attitudes in believing that this is a woman’s problem not a workplace structural problem.

If we want to keep gender equality in the workplace as a priority post Covid-19 we have to be willing to have conversations around gender equality at home as well. Prior to this global pandemic this was rarely discussed openly and was always been seen as a personal matter between couples to sort out between themselves. However, we do have to talk about this more and challenge employers’ attitudes as well as normalising the idea of men being more involved in domestic work at home.

Because without gender equality starting at home first, we will not make any more progress with gender equality in the workplace after this global pandemic is over. In fact, we run the risk of undoing years of progress and innovation, when we should be seizing this opportunity to do better for both men and women.

Our thanks to Michelle Gyimah for this article.
Webinar – Covid-19 and the gender pay gap – friend or foe?

On April 27th, Parental Choice hosted a free webinar with Michelle Gyimah.  You can watch the full video here.

Michelle is the Director of Equality Pays, a gender equality consultancy dedicated to closing workplace pay gaps.

With gender pay gap reporting regulation, possible ethnicity pay gap reporting and a workplace talent shortage looming, redressing inequalities in the workplace is more  important than ever.

Michelle’s unique understanding of employee engagement and workplace challenges enables her to embed practical application into her consultancy.

Michelle is a passionate advocate for enabling women (and men) to progress in their careers in a way that suit their outside of work responsibilities and lifestyle choices. She does this by empowering workplaces to radically rethink how they can support their employees to  thrive at work.

Michelle has over 12 years’ experience of working at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and holds a Masters in Human Rights from The University of Manchester.

Michelle is a regular contributor to numerous national business magazines, international conferences and lives in Manchester, UK.



Parental Choice works with businesses to support their employees who have childcare or eldercare responsibilities.  We do this through helping them secure long-term dependable childcare or finding care homes for the elderly, all supported with a programme of wellbeing talks and presentations to provide emotional strategies designed to help with the challenges of juggling a family and a career.

We have a programme of webinars to help businesses support their employees through the coronavirus outbreak, check out our full programme.

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