International Women's Day 2021

#ChooseToChallenge: challenging the narrative on parenthood in a pandemic

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This piece is part of a series exploring 2021’s International Women’s Day theme #ChooseToChallenge. Pieces from Backbench’s editors represent their personal views and not those of Backbench itself. If you would like to get in touch regarding the series or add a contribution, please email editor@bbench.co.uk.

There are many ways to challenge gender discrimination. I like to think that every one of us writing for this series is ‘choosing to challenge’ misogyny and sexism in their own way. And that’s important. This year’s International Women’s Day theme could not be more apt – we have to challenge gender inequality and discrimination where we find it, because otherwise the clock will turn back on the gains for gender equality and justice that the past few decades have seen. 

Only last month, it was reported that the UK’s equalities watchdog had been asked to investigate the government’s pandemic response with regards to how it has impacted gender equality. And worsening gender divides aren’t just a UK problem; the global picture for women looks bleak. Not only have women suffered the consequences of a ‘shadow pandemic’ of rising domestic abuse, but women have heavily born the economic and social fallout from pandemic restrictions worldwide. One study estimates that while women make up around 39% of the global workforce, they account for roughly 54% of Covid-related job losses.  

There are lots of very complex reasons that explain why the pandemic has hit women hardest. But most of these reasons form part of a bigger picture of structural inequality that exists in societies across the globe. This structural inequality lies in our systems and laws – and comes to define the attitudes we hold. And one of those big attitude barriers to a fairer world lies in how parenthood and the domestic world surrounding it are perceived. 

So, this International Women’s Day, I am challenging the attitudes we hold towards parenthood to explore how we can change them to lead to greater equity across all societies. 

The experience of parenthood is a fairly common one, but we know that childcare responsibilities are disproportionately shouldered by women. Beyond the fact that 90% of single parents are women, even in families where children live with both a mum and a dad, women tend to carry out the majority of domestic duties. Pre-pandemic, UK women carried out 60% more unpaid work than men, spending approximately twice as much time on childcare and housework. 

The pandemic has of course exacerbated this situation. Women around the world report spending more time on domestic chores and are dropping out of the global workforce at an alarming rate. In the UK, we hear stories of employers who have refused working mothers’ furlough requests while children are off school, leading to a situation where many are forced to choose between their jobs and childcare. More than half of all working mothers have said that a lack of childcare throughout the pandemic has led to negativity from their employer. 

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: is a lack of regard afforded to childcare duties because they mostly fall on women, or do such duties fall on women because of an existing lack of regard? In a way, both statements have some truth in them; it is clear that we don’t properly esteem much of the unpaid childcare that goes on in society simply because it is unpaid. The unpaid nature of (the majority of) domestic work is perhaps what makes us so dismissive of it. Of course the reason that this work could be unpaid is because it has naturally fallen on women’s shoulders. Women are primarily the carriers of offspring and usually experience a period of physical constraint associated with childbearing. 

Domestic work categorically ought not to fall on women’s shoulders. But that it does is irrefutable. That domestic work exists and will have to exist going into the future is a given. As long as we fail to offer domestic work the respect and regard it deserves, we will continue to falsely subordinate it (and parenthood) to paid employment. 

And so, we urgently need an attitude change, a rethink of the ways in which we position parenthood and (currently) unpaid work compared to work that generates income and taxes. And with this rethink, we need to see significant reforms to our systems and structures which redress the inequalities that those taking on the burden of unpaid domestic duties have experienced for too long. 

Despite its frequently unpaid nature, housework and caring for children are work. We’ve probably all been trying to rid ourselves of the memory of that Anne Robinson clip that went viral last month, showing the TV presenter laying in to a contestant on the Weakest Link who happened to be a single mother of three boys. Blatant classism aside, Robinson harangued the contestant, asking her if she was on ‘benefits’, cruelly implying that the woman was lazy for not being in paid employment. But as the woman pointed out, she was mother to three boys – something that she described in her own words as a ’24/7 job’. 

Indeed, while biological parents are rarely paid or properly respected for the caring work they do, if those parents weren’t around, other people or institutions would have to take on caring responsibilities. And because early-years caring institutions like nurseries are often prohibitively expensive for parents, women often take time out of the workplace to care for children in the only way that is affordable to them. 

While we as a society often lament the clear trend towards declining birth rates, we’ve not made it at all easy for people, especially women, to have and care for children. By presenting childcare as a domestic duty and its professional incarnation as a sometimes inaccessible afterthought, we have not only excluded many women from paid employment but have also simultaneously dismissed the work they do that leaves women underpaid, underemployed and undervalued when compared with their male counterparts. 

Perhaps the solution lies in a ‘childcare salary’, paid to children’s primary carers by the government. Or perhaps workplace flexibility needs to be enshrined in law, and moves towards a shorter working week need to be put into motion. Universal and accessible childcare should of course become a norm. 

But these practical solutions will first require an attitude change – one which sees the majority of society begin to accept childcare and all its domestic accompaniments as valuable work. And who could dispute that it is? 

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