I write this from my couch - legs propped up and laptop precariously placed on a cushion in my lap.
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I am trying to be quiet: my one year old is napping. Perhaps I have thirty minutes more, an hour if I'm lucky. I'm working, writing - I know I won't have this same peace next week. The COVID-19 case numbers aren't looking good in Munich. It is probable that kindergarten will be back to emergency care and my three and a half year old will be home again for an undefined period of time.
In February 2020, when I left my job as an academic scientist to go on maternity leave and find a new career, I was exuding possibility. I would finally have time to reflect on my career so far. To recover from the burnout I'd experienced attempting to simultaneously manage being a scientist, a mother, and pregnant. To reconcile the fact that I would not be returning to this lab, this job, this project that I’d been working on for the past four years because my contract would be cut off at the end of 2020. My supervisor blamed it on a lack of funding, but I knew the real reason. I could put all that behind me and design a new career, a new purpose, and a new life with our planned return to Australia within the next year or so.
Well, you all know what happened next: hello, pandemic. Not only have my plans been thwarted, I've now got pandemic burnout as well. Bringing a new life into this world (without the support of family and friends), having unreliable childcare for the three and a half year old, the complete lack of social contact, and being in a career limbo and feeling like my identity as a scientist has been stripped away - it’s been tough, to say the least. It’s been made tougher by the fact that my husband’s employer has mandated a “presence requirement”, forcing me to take on almost all childcare responsibilities, and to contend with the gruelling nature of spending all day with my two young children while trying to resurrect my career. My body has recently revolted - I still have a pain on my side where the shingles rash is slowly healing.
I’m aware that to some, I’m lucky. Some naysayers out there would probably retort with “what do you really have to complain about?” I write this not to complain but instead, to bring to light some devastating circumstances that have precipitated during this pandemic.
I tell my story to remind us all how insidiously this stuff can creep up: I have an open-minded husband, I have been afforded a brilliant education, I live in a country (Germany) with a great social system - but now, because I happened to be pregnant at a particular time, because I couldn’t return to my job, because I decided to change careers, and, the straw that broke the camel’s back, because a pandemic happened - I am now living as if women's liberation never existed and feel like I have been hurled back to a former time.
And it’s not just me. I know I am not alone in my experience: I only have to spend thirty seconds scrolling through Instagram to witness both the soft and loud cries for help from many women who are facing the same, similar, or even worse problems.
So, today, let’s take some time to bring these problems into the light. I’m going to use the term “shadow pandemic”: a phrase used most frequently to refer to the increase in cases of domestic abuse that quickly developed during lockdowns. I will use it here more loosely to describe the less ‘seen’, muffled impacts that the pandemic is having on women and in particular, on working mothers. These effects are there even if we can’t always see them clearly and they are pandemics because they’re happening everywhere (in one way or another). If we don’t battle to bring them into the light we will be dealing with the consequences long after the virus is under control. Arguably, controlling the virus will pale in comparison - for there’s no vaccine against inequality.
How have women been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Let’s start with some numbers because I’m a scientist and, if there’s one thing I trust, it’s numbers. Note: I’ve attempted to draw from a range of sources, but it saddens me to see that there are examples everywhere that I can’t possibly begin to cover.
Why has the pandemic meant the exclusion of mothers from the workforce?
Closure of childcare and schools
Availability of childcare and schools is not only essential for children, but also a necessity for working parents. Soon after the pandemic was realised, parents in more than 190 countries worldwide became deprived of this fundamental amenity with the closure of childcare and schools. What at first appeared to be a short-term strategy to prevent the spread of a novel and frightening virus, became one that lasted for months and, in some countries, still continues. Even when childcare and schools were re-opened, these re-openings came with the constant threat of closures and therefore, a weight of unreliability. These regulations have necessitated a complete revolution in how parents manage their work and family responsibilities - often forcing these duties to vie for energy and attention.
Mothers picked up the household slack
You could argue that the unreliability of in-person childcare and schooling has made it a difficult time for working parents in general, not only mothers. But the statistics tell us a different story. During lockdowns, women in Europe spent almost double the amount of time than men caring for children (62 hours versus 36). They also spent considerably more time performing household chores (23 hours versus 15). Similar statistics were observed in the US. It seems that both marriage and having children were associated with this unbalance of duties - the biggest gender gap was between married men, and women with children, and the smallest between unmarried men and women with no children. This unbalance is seemingly ever-present, even within highly educated couples and in instances where the female is the breadwinner.
With the burden of full-time childcare and home responsibilities, mothers have had to reduce or walk away from paid work
A survey of 20,000 working UK mothers by Pregnant Then Screwed, found that 72% of mothers were forced to work fewer hours during the pandemic because of lack of childcare. They were also more likely to leave employment altogether. The UK survey also demonstrates that almost half of mothers who were made redundant during the pandemic blame it on lack of childcare.
Mothers cannot work optimally under these conditions and will suffer longer-term career impacts
Christine Koh, a mother and “neuroscientist turned multimedia creative”, wrote in the Washington Post: “Recently - 10-plus months into the pandemic - I finally got one full (eight-hour), uninterrupted workday in my home office”. She describes herself as being “one of the lucky ones” - with kids who can look after themselves, and an “actively engaged” spouse. But, she adds, because of the nature of their jobs (and her husband having to be out of the home for work), she has taken on all of the home-school supervision responsibilities while still working a full-time job and has spent “a considerable amount of time feeling utterly unravelled”.
Alessandra Minello (a mother and statistician) echoes this sentiment, arguing that academic work in particular, where career advancement is based on scientific publications and the ability to obtain funding, “is basically incompatible with tending to children”.
Pre-pandemic, mothers were already standing behind “the maternal wall” (sometimes referred to as the “motherhood penalty”), of discrimination: they earn lower salaries, are considered to be less committed to their careers, frequently miss out on being hired or promoted, are pushed off projects or fired while on maternity leave, or (if they make it back) have a hard time in the return process. The maternal wall is even higher for women of colour and other minorities. Women are also the minority in high-level positions in a range of fields. Despite holding 50% of PhDs, far fewer women than men occupy the senior principal investigator positions in academic science. Only 2.6% of CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies are women. A worldwide analysis found that only 23% of executives are women.
The truth is, “employers see motherhood as a liability”. Arguably, they also see women as a liability, particularly those in the child-bearing years. This sentiment is only going to continue to grow if we keep penalising mothers by stripping them of fundamental resources. Minello (the statistician I referred to above) expresses the troubling thoughts plaguing many working mothers: “Will anyone in the academic community (or any workplace) take into account our unbalanced approach to family care and work? No. All of us will participate together in open competition for promotion and positions.” I frequently worry about what will happen to my career - how I will explain this extended gap that I never intended to have? It was already hard enough, determining whether to clearly define maternity leave gaps on my CV or to try to hide them, whether to let potential employers know that I have kids or not. How will I explain this perhaps 1+ year gap? I feel that putting "pandemic leave" just won't cut it. The pandemic has exposed every weakness in the system and has infinitely increased the height of that maternal wall. So much so that many mothers are saying, “I want to, but I just can’t continue to fight under these conditions”, and are walking or, more often, being thrust out of the workforce in pandemic proportions.
How can we find a way to halt and reverse this mass exodus?
The response to the pandemic by governments around the world was a hasty reaction to a situation that was rapidly and terrifyingly getting out of control. We have to assume that they simply did the best they could in an unprecedented situation with little information to draw on. But here we see that the needs of some people were overlooked, and have continued to be overlooked.
What is important now - now that we see a way out of the mess of the pandemic - is not to continue to act like we have no information, but to draw on the knowledge that we now have to make more-informed decisions that will change the trajectory for the long-term.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen says “Gender equality is a core principle of the European Union, but it is not yet a reality”. Well, you can say that again, Ursula. I do appreciate her willingness to fight for gender equality and her acknowledgement of its lack, but I really wish that these weren’t the kind of problems we are discussing in 2021. If nothing else though, if we can see any silver lining, at least the pandemic has exposed some of the inequalities that were always present, but have been particularly exacerbated by these extreme and unprecedented circumstances.
The European Commission is taking some small steps towards a more equitable future, which gives some hope that things might move forward in a better direction. Their vision is to cultivate “a gender equal Europe” where: “We are free to pursue our chosen path in life.” "We have equal opportunities to thrive in society and the economy.” “We can lead and equally participate in our economy and society.”
The way forward that I see will involve acknowledgement of all the less-obvious and more insidious pandemic effects, and continued research in these areas, in order to provide evidence to promote major alterations to current strategies and regulations and, maybe even, to allow everyone to be free, thrive, and lead.
I end this on a different day, but still sitting in the same chair, again working while my one year old naps. I still don't see a clear path out of the barriers that the pandemic has placed on me as a woman and as a mother regarding my future career. But now, after reading the statistics and reading vulnerable accounts from other women, I at least feel a smidge of hope that we can somehow turn this thing around. I feel a little more seen and I feel like my experience matters. I hope reading this has made you feel that too (no matter how small, no matter how fleeting).
So now I hand it over to you: What has your experience of the pandemic been? How has your life been negatively impacted? Leave your thoughts in the comments below (or, if you’re more private in nature - feel free to reach out to me personally or to The Egalitarian).