Exhaustion is forcing some women to choose between work and ensuring their kids don’t fall behind at school and suffer their own mental health issues. Economists and workplace academics warn this could set women’s superannuation and long-term financial security back and further erode equality.
In an August paper for the Journal of Industrial Relations, Sydney University Business School professor Rae Cooper noted data showed 2020 lockdowns had already caused women to be more likely to withdraw from work.
“Breaks in labour force participation have long been shown to have lasting wage-scarring effects, a phenomenon that is particularly acute for women, suggesting that these pandemic-related interruptions could have significant long-term consequences and compound existing inequalities,” the paper reported.
Jane Fisher, director of Global and Women’s Health at Monash University, has been following women’s wellbeing during the pandemic and describes the stress load on those working and home-schooling as so significant that women are saying “I can’t do this any more, I can’t go on”.
Psychologists such as Dr Mandy Deeks say they commonly hear severely overloaded women describe life in terms such as “I’m feeling hopeless, feeling powerless and feeling helpless”.
“I was just with a client who was sobbing with exhaustion, saying it’s impossible to juggle everything I’m being asked [to do]. It’s physical and it’s mental,” says Deeks, formerly of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.
In the US, global management consulting firm McKinsey warned recently that women are dropping out of work due to factors including the conflict between it and home duties/home-schooling to such a great extent that COVID-19 threatens to take workplace gender equality back five years.
Professional women’s networks such as Business Chicks hear in weekly online meetings that, while Australian women are keenly aware how fortunate they are compared with those experiencing international crises, many are struggling and some are already cutting back.
“Overwhelmingly we’re hearing the overload and mental health issues are just dire, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne,” says Business Chicks CEO Olivia Ruello. “They’re just surviving. We hear super-bright girls saying, ‘I’m really weighing up whether or not this is worth it; whether I should take a hiatus from work and focus on just being there for my family’.
“The caveat to all of that [is] you’re taking a hit for three years on your superannuation, and the lack of financial empowerment in terms of taking those decisions is massive. I would say think long and hard about exiting the workforce and the repercussions.
“Women are already taking a hit not being on super while on maternity leave, we’re already running five years behind the blokes.”
Women in heterosexual partnerships feel they need to be the ones to make the work-participation sacrifice because men typically earn more (reinforced this week by Australia’s widening gender pay gap statistics). Also, men’s employers are less likely to understand they can’t be at every Zoom meeting because they need to supervise schoolwork.
“When you have to make a decision around who’s going to do the home-schooling, it’s typically the woman’s career that’s going to give, but if the relationship breaks down the woman is [in serious trouble] if she has no super,” says Ruello, who has seen at least one member of her own flex-friendly team reduce work.
As Sydney’s lockdown dragged on, Business Chicks’ community engagement director, Rebecca Bodman, cut her hours by 25 per cent to manage the extra care of two young children, as her husband works in distant areas.
Despite being “a pretty capable person, one of those people that gets on with things”, the reality of managing care solo and working meant “that decision [about keeping up the professional pace] is taken away. I struggle with that, I can’t contribute the way I want to.
“I have a girlfriend who has completely stopped working because she’s home-schooling. She works for a construction company and has a daughter in year 1 and a two-year-old and just couldn’t do it … I think for women who love their jobs, that’s a big part of their identity and it really affects their mental health [to stop].”
Economists such as Equity Economics’ Dr Angela Jackson are monitoring the pandemic’s impact on women’s economic wellbeing, as well as experiencing it first-hand. She has children aged six and nine and realised in Melbourne’s long lockdown that following up a day of remote learning support with a night of work, as many say they are, is punishing.
“Last year I could do a lot more and just keep going and work until midnight every night,” says Jackson. “I just don’t have the capacity this year to work at that level. Kids’ mental health [generally] isn’t as strong, they aren’t doing as well and are not as resilient, so they need a lot more, so it’s a lot harder to keep on the road.
“You just don’t have the reserves you had last year to do it, necessarily, again.”
Research showing women carrying more of the home-schooling load – though men are also doing more home chores than they did before the pandemic – has highlighted that women do the majority of unpaid work in Australia despite the fact they have become more economically active.
We need to make that fairer, the allocation of work in the household and the burden.
Dr Angela Jackson
“We need to make that fairer, the allocation of work in the household and the burden. It isn’t good for women’s mental health and limits women’s ability to participate in the economy. You can change that social norm,” says Jackson.
Workplaces need to adapt expectations so fathers, as well as mothers, are recognised as needing to participate in meaningful amounts of care. “We need leadership by example from employers and from our politicians. There’s a lot of talk about ‘we know it’s hard, my wife’s doing it really tough at home’, what we really need is to see you [the father] doing it.”
While Jackson says she had friends “whose partners flat-out refused to do [home-schooling support],” the good news is this is not in every household: “The pandemic has led a lot of households to shift to a more equal distribution.”
Other solutions could include rapid COVID-19 testing to help schools remain open or open more quickly, says Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood. “While schools are closed there is just this huge amount of work to be done. We should be planning to keep schools open as much as possible and give much more active consideration to things such as rapid antigen tests for school students,” she says.
“Once we start to reopen, it will be schoolchildren [under 12] who are not vaccinated. If we lock down schools every time there’s a case, this [stress on women’s ability to remain fully connected with employment] will be magnified.”
Overseas experience suggests women are more likely to take a step backward in careers – and/or potentially make decisions about whether to take promotions – based on how much burden they carry at home.
“Something like home-schooling might be sustainable for weeks alongside your normal job, but once it starts going for months, somebody has to pick up that slack. The Australian data I see suggests women are doing more and we know whenever there is compromise to be made on career versus care, historically women have been the ones making those bigger compromises,” Wood says.
Professor Rae Cooper says the federal government should follow American President Joe Biden’s lead and put a firm gender lens on reconstruction policies: “Women will absolutely slip back unless we prioritise gender equality and put building their economic independence at the front of government business.”
Fisher suggests supports for women struggling to run small businesses and home-school could include government financial aid being extended to businesses earning less than $70,000 a year. (They are not required to register for GST, so do not qualify for existing packages.) These “are often the kind of businesses women are running from a domestic base,” she says.
This would help ease some financial worry and allow women who need to focus on family and “experience some equilibrium”, she says.
Other solutions include employers offering time off which does not require people to use up personal leave, and a national community consultation process, inviting those beyond the bureaucracy and academia to offer ideas about how best to keep women engaged with work but not stretched beyond healthy limits.
Sydney sales executive Laura Lane, whose parents live interstate, says for now the answer to the work-and-care clash is to work into the wee hours, often until 2am. “I’m finding this lockdown has robbed you of the village you need … whilst you can have a very flexible employer, which I have, the only way you can get through it is eating into the night like me and a lot of other women do,” Lane says.
“It’s not possible to keep surviving on so little sleep, or keep working so late into the night. But as a mother you don’t ever check out of everything, unlike men, who I think can check out a bit more to focus on work.”
“You’re just burning the candle at both ends – I think there should be press conferences not just about COVID numbers but about mental health.” Lane says such is the deep conflict many mothers feel that some she knows who are between jobs have decided not to look for work: “We don’t have lifelines to help manage work and the household burden.”
‘I think there should be press conferences not just about COVID numbers but about mental health.’
Laura Lane, sales executive
Lane would like far wider paternity leave and flexible work for fathers from the moment babies are born, to help establish cultural change permitting men to be more engaged with care throughout children’s lives.
Mother and marketing manager Vanessa Puopolo, a member of the Future Women network whose online group discussed the accumulating load on women last week, says societal expectations that dictate mothers run care even if they are the higher earner must be challenged.
“Society still operates on the assumption of women as the primary carer and decision maker for children. I see a lot of women carrying the majority of increased mental load of caring for children in lockdown.
“It is the amplification of a system that has told women from day one they are in charge of the child. For men to be considered the key point of contact for many of those tasks and decisions, they often have to proactively ask for that to happen.”
Melbourne University sociology professor Lyn Craig agrees measures to encourage shared care are overdue and says the risk to women’s wellbeing if they do feel they need to drop work are significant.
“Care, social reproduction and all that stuff is a collective concern that we’ve framed as a private matter for individuals and families to solve, apart from that nanosecond at the beginning of the pandemic [when childcare was made free and the industry subsidised to support women to work],” she says.
“That window closed, but I think we have to prise it open for the social and economic good of everyone. This is nothing new, it just needs to be taken seriously. It’s like climate change, we can’t go on raping the environment and we can’t go on exploiting women like this. It’s just unsustainable.”