“I feel like a 1950s housewife,” a friend admitted on Zoom as we compared our recent lockdown experiences. Given an article with this exact title appeared in the Guardian just a few weeks later, shows she isn’t an isolated case. Despite embodying the middle-class quarantine cliché of embracing elasticated waists, I have found solace that I am not the only one feeling imprisoned by a domesticity treadmill that would shock even my grandmother. My days seem to be spent in an endless cycle of meal preparation, laundry, picking up orphaned shoes discarded around the house, and preventing my children from gouging each other’s eyes out. It’s a far cry from the feminist professional most people in the industry know me as, and the fact that I am not alone makes me worry that we are rapidly losing ground in our fight for women’s equality.
Let me explain.
What if there isn’t a return to ‘normality’ after the virus? In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing: I may never squeeze my feet into a pair of heels again. And, let’s face it, there isn’t one reticent boss who hasn’t been forced to witness how easy and efficient working from home can be. I have been advocating for flexible-working for over a decade and I can only hope that this will lead to radically different ways of working for everyone when restrictions on movement are lifted. The benefits to individuals and companies are proven time and again.
But while head honchos are more laidback about sticky-faced kids interrupting Zoom meetings than we ever envisaged when Professor Robert Kelly’s family burst into meme-dom in 2017, there is still a distinct lack of empathy for the reality facing many women in our society. And I fear that the scales of gender equality have tipped back in favour of men far more than we have realised.
The simple fact remains that women still bear the overwhelming brunt of the domestic load. In the UK, before the crisis, women had five hours less leisure time per week than men and, globally, 75% unpaid work is done by women, according to Caroline Criado Perez in her powerful book, Invisible Women. With the entire infrastructure supporting working parents being whisked from underneath us in the last six weeks, it is women who are disproportionately taking on the additional burden. While this is unlikely to be deliberate, our progress in gender equality appears to have been reversed by stealth as swelling domestic chores creep into our new workplace – the home.
We have more meals to cook, more laundry to do, a house that is filled with more crumbs than ever before, and home schooling to marshall. Sure there are many modern men sharing housework and childcare, but that is the case in far too few homes. It’s no wonder that my social feeds are full of stressed out women desperately trying to reassure each other that the feral existence we have been forced to adopt won’t scar our children in the long run.
But surely this is a short-term thing?
I actually believe we could be on the brink of a mass – and involuntary – exodus of women from our industry. The pressures on working mothers have always contributed to a higher incidence of stress, anxiety, and depression – almost double the rate reported by their male counterparts according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive in 2017. Layer on top of this the pandemic’s uncontrollable conditions, and mental health issues for working mothers are soaring. With more than 10,000 childcare providers on the brink of permanent closure as a result of lockdown, the struggle facing working families when we return to the new normal is only going to worsen. One friend told me that she is already rattling her way through her annual leave just to survive.
Women will consequently be more vulnerable to corporate cost cutting exercises, more likely to volunteer for redundancy (or being furloughed) in an effort to cope temporarily. They will join a growing number of people in our industry out of work - whether on career breaks or freelancing in a dried up and volatile market – and the number of women in these groups far outweigh men.
Getting back into the workplace is not going to be an easy feat for many with a recession imminent. Already scarce senior roles are likely to become rarer still. If the industry starts to close its ranks as the economy tanks, can we really afford to let some of our most talented women’s lives be reduced to domesticity of Cinderella-esque magnitude?
It’s up to us - as leaders, friends, colleagues and partners - to fight against the tide. Be aware we could be on the precipice of an equality imbalance reminiscent of several decades ago. Given the economic boost that attracting women back into the workplace could have on our country, we must tackle this head on.
So here is an opportunity to make a direct impact on the future of the diversity of our industry – let’s act together to shift the current:
Enter cost-cutting exercises with eyes wide open, having gender balance front of mind
Offer truly flexible schedules – taking the best from the COVID WFH learnings
Launch return-to-work programmes and mentoring
Embrace the Creative Equals seven point charter and Equality Standard
Implement blind CVs in recruitment
Train managers to provide constructive feedback to interviewees andcolleagues
Support your wives and girlfriends, listen to their fears, help them realise their value
And most importantly, pick up your shoes.
Let’s not allow the pandemic pressures set us back to square one. We don’t need a fairy godmother; we need you.