(Featured image: Cat Fletcher)
In dual-income households, working women disproportionately cared for children, but the impact of Victoria’s lockdowns are more complex than they appear.
Two days before Melbourne went into its first lockdown in mid-March, Jess went into labour with her first child.
Now mother to a seven-month-old son, neither have met another mum—or baby—since she became a parent.
Jess is one of the almost 60 thousand women who gave birth in Victoria during the lockdown period between March and October 2020.
She is also part of a cohort of working mothers who were slammed by the demands of adding childcare and schooling responsibilities to their full-time workload this year.
“It’s not been the journey into parenthood that I thought I’d have, that’s for sure,” Jess said.
Much has been written about the gendered economic impact of the pandemic, with economists suggesting the Covid-19 recession may have a more negative impact on women, compared to previous recessions that hit mainly male-dominated industries.
This is compounded with evidence that women take on more childcare responsibilities even among dual-earning couples.
A US-focused study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org reported that a quarter of American women are considering leaving the workforce, reducing work hours, or changing to a part-time or less demanding role.
However, in Melbourne, the Australian city hardest-hit by Australia’s strict lockdowns, it appears that working mums were bent but not broken, with some discovering new opportunities.
‘I’ve been able to grow my business as my child grows’
Jess was working full-time in finance before she took maternity leave a few weeks before Melbourne’s first lockdown.
She had been thinking about starting a virtual assistant-style business to have more flexibility as she adapted to life with a newborn.
Then Covid hit, leaving Jess facing the prospect of full-time childcare on top of returning to her nine-to-five job.
“It was kind of like ‘if it takes off, it takes off’, and if it doesn’t I’ll just go back to my career that I had in banking and finance before,” Jess said of her plans to strike out on her own.
But with childcare centres closed and a baby trapped at home, she began taking on project-based work.
She quickly realised the pandemic had not only sparked demand for the services she offered, it had levelled the playing field with a more “forgiving” attitude towards work flexibility.
With the pandemic prompting the leap to start a business, Jess has been able to spend more time with her baby, “which never would have been an option otherwise.”
“It’s been kind of good in a way that I’ve been able to grow my business as my child grows and as I’ve been able to take on things, rather than the traditional 12 months and then go straight back into full-time work.”
The worst of both worlds
Many others saw their plans slammed shut as lockdown took hold.
Anjali, an educational counselor, also had her first child a few days before Melbourne’s lockdown began on 13 March.
While she had planned to have her parents fly in from their home in India to help out, the borders closed before they could travel to Australia.
“We planned a lot—arrival parties and this and that. But we couldn’t do anything,” Anjali said.
She returned to remote work “somewhere between part-time and full-time” in June, caring for her baby with her husband, an essential worker who begins before dawn and finishes work in the afternoon.
“Mentally, it’s very stressful,” Anjali said.
“I have to keep my eyes on her, and at the same time I have to focus on my work as well.”
She says that while her husband helped her by caring for their baby in the afternoons, “it’s very hectic.”
“It’s very hard to manage everything; sometimes you get really exhausted.”
“You go through emotional trauma.”
When flexible work is the only option
Research into the impact of homeschooling and childcare on gendered work and employment is now coming to light.
It shows that while the time Australian women spent on childcare increased during lockdown, they managed to hold onto their jobs—and even recovered working hours as the year went on.
Results from a survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that the average amount of unpaid work in Australia increased by over 3.5 hours each day for women and by over 2.5 hours each day for men.
But, because men generally spend less time on caring responsibilities before lockdown, the relative increase was still greater for men.
Sharmistha (or Sharmi, as her friends know her), a full-time IT professional, said she struggled to balance helping her children, aged 16 and ten, with an increased workload during the lockdown.
“I think what I’ve realised is that there’s a difference in how men are responding to the lockdown,” she said.
“I’m trying to engage still more,” she explained, “whereas I can see that my husband is flat out, he doesn’t have any headspace after work.”
Aimee, a mum of three kids under the age of 13, works at her family commercial installation business in Melbourne.
She said she got less done but continued to work full-time during the lockdowns.
“Mentally, you get down on yourself—you’re not achieving what you’d normally achieve.” Aimee said.
However, she said she decided as the second lockdown went on to try to accept that she wouldn’t be working the way she normally would, “and just had to try to cope with it like that.”
“You can only do so much as one person,” she said.
In the space of 10 mins, I've seen comments from 2 public figures – a politician & a newspaper columnist – re how hard it is for mums to juggle home school & their jobs (a) drop the assumption it's all on mothers (b) dads: step up, cos your fair share of the kids' school is half.
— Leigh Sales (@leighsales) August 7, 2020
A “pink recession”
Findings so far suggest that the alarm bells that were set off in April, when reports showed a peak in the number of women who worked fewer than their usual hours or no hours at all, may not point to “pink recession”—at least not for working mothers.
“Pink recession” refers to the potential for the recession to unevenly impact women because of their over-representation in more precarious employment, including casual work without access to paid leave.
The figures in Table 1 show how diverse the impact of the recession has been so far. It does not suggest a strong correlation between the female intensity of an industry and declines in employment by industry.
In April, women’s workforce participation decreased by 2.9 percent while men’s participation decreased by 1.9 percent.
However, of the payroll jobs lost as of mid-April, 52 percent of the jobs held by women had been recovered as of August, compared to 19 percent of the jobs held by men.
In addition women experienced stronger employment growth, with unemployment falling by 86,500 people of which 55,800 were women.
Both Sharmi, Anjali and Aimee said changing or reducing working hours to manage childcare and homeschooling was simply not an option.
“We couldn’t compromise on our work,” Sharmi said of herself and her husband.
“We don’t have that luxury.”