Unpaid care: the only Coronavirus constant?

Date Posted: Thursday 28th May 2020

Data from the IFS yesterday confirms that, while society has been turned upside down by Covid-19, one of the few social dynamics left intact is that women take more responsibility for unpaid care.

In a time use study of 5000 two-parent heterosexual households, the IFS found mothers others are doing 50% more unpaid childcare and housework than fathers, while fathers are doing almost double the amount of paid work, compared with 2014/15 data.

Where both partners are working from home mothers reported less uninterrupted time to work than fathers, and that they were doing more ‘active’ childcare. Mothers and fathers used to be interrupted during the same proportion of their work hours; now mothers are interrupted over 50% more often.

Even in couples where the mother is still in paid work while the father is furloughed, fathers only do marginally more childcare than mothers (9.5 hours compared to 9 hours per day), while in couples where only the father is working women report nearly 11 hours childcare a day compared to less than six and a half hours for fathers).

ONS data supports these findings citing that women do, on average, one hour and seven minutes more unpaid work a day than men, whilst a joint study by the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford agrees: suggesting that women did a full hours more childcare each day in April.

At the same time mothers are more likely to have been furloughed than fathers and one and half times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit: 16% mothers have lost work entirely compared with 11% of fathers. This means mothers who were in paid work in February are 9 percentage points less likely to be currently working for pay (either remotely or on-site) than fathers. In 2014/15, mothers were in paid work at 80% of the rate of fathers; they are now working 70% of the fathers’ rate. Mothers in paid work used to work an average of 73% of the hours that fathers worked; this has fallen to 68%.

If we are to believe lockdown is slowly being lifted and schools begin to return, does this still matter? Unfortunately, yes. Women did more unpaid care work before the pandemic. They are doing even more unpaid care work during the pandemic and if we do not take action, they will continue to do more unpaid care work long into the future, setting back the course of gender equality

The sectors set to haphazardly reopen next month are sectors dominated by women including education (where 80% of staff are women) and retail (where 60% of staff are women.) Already, women are the majority of key workers. Echoing the sentiments of journalists and parliamentarians across the political spectrum, we ask: how are women supposed to return to work without childcare when we continue to take on the majority of unpaid work?

The crisis in childcare existed before Coronavirus: even before lockdown only 57% of local authorities had enough childcare available for early years children which saw women significantly more likely to work part time or take long career breaks.  Additional pressures as a result of the pandemic has led providers to warn that many will no longer be financially viable meaning there will be a serious shortage of childcare places.

Lockdown has exacerbated and exposed the extent to which the economy relies on unpaid care to function yet continues to ignore it in all modelling, planning and policy.

Without full time childcare available, primary schools unlikely to take the majority of children back full time before the school holidays and secondary schools not open till September there is a real risk of a two tier return to work. This will put women at increased risk of redundancy as the furlough scheme ends and employers seek to cut costs.

If we are to avoid a recovery which, in the words of Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss, does not disadvantage women and minorities, we need to think seriously about care – paid and unpaid. Parents need a guarantee that they can continue to be furloughed if they cannot get full time childcare and, protections need to be put in place to hold companies accountable for who they are making redundant and why. Long-awaited financial settlements for both the social care and childcare sectors are needed as investments in social infrastructure which create jobs, provide care and enable women to equally participate in the labour market. Finally, all Government departments including the Treasury need to commit to doing and publishing comprehensive and meaningful equality impact assessments which take account of the gendered division of care.

In times of uncertainty, it might feel tempting to cling to those very few things which have not changed, let care not be one of them.