A Woman’s Work is Never Done – Caring in the Time of Covid

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Home Schooling – Source: UNICEF on Wikimedia Commons

The division of work between women and men is, and has long been, profoundly gendered. Women’s access to equal paid work, leisure time and power remains constrained by their traditional social roles as carers and mothers even as they have entered and remained in the labour market in greater numbers. There is an expectation that women should undertake work as unpaid carers more than men. This came into even sharper focus during the Covid-19 crisis.

Women have been busier than ever during the pandemic. We have seen a significant increase in care and childcare duties undertaken by women. Many report the difficulties of trying to work from home and look after children when schools closed, as well as helping older family members with shopping, transport, personal care and emotional support. Research examining evidence from the UK, US and Germany found that since lockdown, regardless of whether they are also doing paid work, women at home were spending six hours providing childcare and home schooling every working day while fathers were providing around four. The studies also showed that women’s greater propensity to be providing childcare related to their being more likely to have lost their jobs during lockdown. Women in both the US and UK were shown to be 5% more likely to lose their jobs than men since Covid-19 and were less likely to be able to work from home.

Caroline, in her mid-40’s, found herself juggling a full time job as an administrator working from home during the first lockdown while supporting her two children with their school work, doing all the household chores, cooking and childcare while her partner spent most of his time working on his computer and doing video work meetings. She found it highly stressful and was exhausted.

“Even before the pandemic, I was finding the work-life balance difficult. But with the pandemic, my life became much more challenging. We live in a small house and it was difficult to keep the children occupied and happy while we were working. It placed great strains on my relationship with my husband. He has a very demanding job and is the chief breadwinner. I just wanted to go to bed and stay there. My mental health really suffered and I had to give up my job. Before the pandemic, my mother used to help with after school childcare but we have had to put her safety first and lost that support.”

Many women stopped working during Covid-19 through no fault of their own. They are over-represented in insecure, hourly employment and in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic such as hospitality, leisure, retail and tourism.  Female workers have consequently lost their jobs or been furloughed at a higher rate than men. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that British mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently become unemployed during the pandemic.

The pandemic has also exacerbated existing inequalities related to ethnicity, class and disability. Black Britons, for example, were less likely than all other ethnic groups to have a job that allowed them to work from home (one possible factor that may have may have contributed to the increased risk of catching and dying from Covid-19 among this group). “I feel worn out and sick with worry,” says Trixie, a single parent living in Gloucester with her seven-year-old son. After spending every weekday home-schooling, without a laptop or internet access, she works for around three hours an evening cleaning in a local care home while he is looked after by his grandmother.

“Before the pandemic, I was working at two jobs but I lost my part time day work. I worry about catching the virus and passing it onto my family. It’s been a struggle to make ends meet. I have to use the local food bank. I had plans to go back to college to improve my job prospects but now I feel trapped in poverty. My mother is not in good health either and I worry about her needing care.”

A recent report found that women are more likely to take on caring roles than men. Of the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, 58% (over 3 million) are women. Furthermore, female carers are more likely to be providing ‘round the clock’ care, with 60% of those caring for over 50 hours a week being female. Many are more likely to be ‘sandwich’ carers – caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time. Caring responsibilities fall particularly on women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. One in four women aged 50-64 has caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones. They are also more likely to have given up work or have to reduce their working hours in order to care.

There is a massive crisis in social care which the government has so far failed to address. We are on average living much longer with the post war baby boomers moving into their 70s, therefore the numbers of people needing care and support will continue to grow over the next two decades. A study by the Personal Social Services Research Unit at LSE suggests that over the next 20 years a significant gap will emerge between the supply of unpaid carers and the demand for such care. As the NHS attempts to recover from the impact of Covid-19 and focuses on the massive backlog of acute work, local authorities do not have the funding to provide the community and social care which is needed, following the swingeing cuts made since 2010.  The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services in England’s Spring Survey revealed that council budgets are not able to meet increasing demands for care they are receiving. There is a long wait for assessment of needs which adds even more to the burden of caring for someone without support.  Further work by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) reports that between 2009−10 and 2017−18, mean per-person spending on social care for the over 65s fell by 31%. The result of successive governments’ failure to tackle this crisis is a broken care system with far fewer people receiving any support. Consequently unpaid carers, usually family members or friends, have to shoulder the burden of providing vital care to bridge the gap. It has been estimated that the value to the state of unpaid care is £132bn per year.

Those who do receive Carer’s Allowance are compensated with a measly £67.25 per week. Unpaid carers pay a heavy price in financial terms, poorer physical health, mental strain and social isolation.

Julie is in her early 60’s and is the sole carer for her mother who has a number of long term health problems and needs help with personal care, cooking, and day to day tasks. Caring for her mother during the pandemic has been even more intense and lonely as they needed to shield.

I haven’t had a break at all. I feel very alone and forgotten. I really miss having some time to see friends and have a breather. Trying to manage on my Carers Allowance is very difficult and I worry about money all the time. Costs have gone up during the pandemic and with the rise in energy bills coming, I dread the winter coming.”

Women’s unpaid work has been ignored and marginalised within our economic and social policy for generations, but Covid-19 has at once made our reliance on care for others obvious and has intensified its demands. Those who have lost their work during the pandemic have experienced additional demands which outweigh the ‘extra time’ theoretically available. Unpaid carers for disabled people and older people need to have their contribution to society properly acknowledged and remunerated. Better recognition for carers, better support for their own health and wellbeing also needs urgent attention. 
The government must not continue to exploit exhausted unpaid carers, expecting to get social care on the cheap.

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