Fears of a “Mum-cession”: experts warn of pandemic motherhood penalty

Fears of a ‘Mum-cession’: experts warn of pandemic motherhood penalty

Several leading experts are sounding the alarm, telling Women’s Agenda that a perfect storm brought on by COVID-19 could exacerbate the motherhood penalty.

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our collective health and the health of the economy, plunging Australia into its first recession in 29 years (something economists have more aptly called a “she-cession” due to the over-representation of women amongst job losses), experts are now warning of a “pandemic motherhood penalty” that could have long lasting consequences for mothers. 

The “motherhood penalty”, an umbrella term coined to encapsulate the myriad of issues that contribute to mothers’ inequality in the workplace, includes: the “chores gap”, i.e. the fact that women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care and domestic work, the lack of flexible work or equitable parental leave policies for fathers and mothers to help level that domestic playing field, the lack of access to affordable childcare, and gender-based discrimination, including pregnancy discrimination.

In short, the concept of the motherhood penalty captures all of the issues that have long contributed to a career cliff edge of sorts for too many mothers, forcing them onto a “mummy track” of poorer pay and poorer prospects — if they manage to continue working at all.   

In Australia, that penalty has been deeply entrenched and, according to data, is getting worse. Now, several leading experts are sounding the alarm, telling Women’s Agenda that the perfect storm on all these fronts brought on by COVID-19 could exacerbate the troubling trend.

The motherhood penalty in Australia – entrenched and getting worse

In 2018, Women’s Agenda surveyed all the available gender equality data to surface key trends for a report, Press for (immediate) Progress, and concluded that there was a significant motherhood penalty in Australia — and it was getting worse.

According to the Diversity Council, which regularly produces a report, “She’s Priceless”, looking at the drivers of the gender pay gap, the influence of years not working, i.e. career interruptions (usually related to the birth of children), has more than doubled since the Diversity Council first researched the drivers of the gender pay gap ten years ago.

What’s more, Australia has some of the highest part-time work rates for women in the world, according to the OECD. Only Switzerland and the Netherlands outrank us. The cost of childcare has been outpacing inflation and wage growth, crippling the family budget. Women have typically spent up to twice as much time on unpaid domestic housework and caring as men. And last, but not least, 1 in 2 women report experiencing discrimination while pregnant, on maternity leave or when they return to work.

Over a lifetime, this adds up to the ultimate “motherhood penalty”, with women retiring with on average half the superannuation as men, and older single women the fastest growing group of people falling into homelessness.

Last year, that “cliff edge” was most saliently captured by this graph produced by Dr. Jennifer Baxter of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (reproduced in Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay, Men at Work), which went viral.

Many policy makers and politicians were so concerned about women’s so-called “ economic security”, they repeatedly voiced the need for strategies to address the motherhood penalty related issues that undermine it. In 2018, then Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer even launched a Women’s Economic Security Statement. Then the pandemic hit.

The pandemic chore wars

At the start of the pandemic, some voiced fears that it would increase the chores gap, sending women back to the 1950’s. Others expressed hope men and women in heterosexual couples would take the opportunity to “re-set”, with the invisible made visible to a generation of men now forced to work from home. So, what happened?

Several experts set out to find out via two large pandemic time use surveys, and while they have not yet released the full findings, early indications are it won’t be good news.

Melbourne University Sociology Professor Lynn Craig and Dr. Brendan. Churchill, a sociology research fellow, embarked on the Work and Care in the Time of COVID-19 survey, and their initial read of the findings is that women’s burden of caring has increased disproportionately compared to men. Women’s time “actively caring” for loved ones has gone up by not quite two hours, while mens’ has increased by 1 ½ hours. Men are doing more, but not as much as women. When it comes to “actively doing the housework”, though, the additional COVID related burden has been almost exclusively born by women.

It seems that there is something to that recent New York Times headline that quipped, “Gentlemen, start your vacuum cleaners.”

“Women are stretching out their days and doing more,” says Churchill.

“They are being pushed back into home, and they are still doing more in every sense.”

“Government needs to prioritise women and mothers and develop a concerted policy agenda or — in another ten years’ time– we will see another report (from the Diversity Council looking at the drivers of the gender pay gap) showing that the impact of the motherhood penalty has increased,” adds Churchill. “We certainly won’t see that motherhood penalty close; if anything, it will increase.”

At the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Director Anne Hollands and the inestimable Jennifer Baxter (she of viral women’s career cliff edge chart fame), have embarked on the Families in Australia: Life during COVID-19 survey. The full findings will be released within weeks, but their early findings are similar to those of Craig and Churchill.

“Whilst some of us were very excited in the early stages, thinking maybe we might see some re-writing of the rules at home about who does what — I said in an interview, ‘Maybe it takes a pandemic for these things to change’ — the pandemic didn’t do it,” says Holland. “In fact, it’s the opposite. In a time of pandemic, of stress and anxiety, we seem to move backward to gendered norms, like a comfortable pair of shoes.”

“If we’re going to take this seriously, we have to invest now for the long-term benefits,” adds Hollands. “Maybe things have gone back and some women are finding themselves stuck; if that’s the case, it needs to be an issue that’s discussed and policy effort put into addressing it.”

“The economy will suffer in the long run if women find it harder to get back — there is an economic benefit to creating that bridge back,” warns Hollands.

Childcare policy out of sync with working family’s new economic reality

In May, before Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the “snap back” to the old childcare system of subsidies following a brief period that saw total fee relief for parents, The Parenthood released a survey of 2280 families indicating that ending the childcare rescue package would force parents in 60 percent of households dependent on that care to reduce work, and it would most likely be mothers who would need to stop or cut back their hours.

“We know that mother’s employment in most families is very strongly dependent on childcare,” says Baxter from AIFS. “That’s how families frame it; around the mother’s employment rather the father’s employment.”

“If families don’t have access to the childcare or can’t afford the childcare that they used to have, for whatever reason to do with the cost of childcare going up or loss in income, it is very likely to have an impact on the mother’s employment,” adds Baxter, who is also leading the Australian Government funded Child Care Package Evaluation monitoring report, which is evaluating the impact of the new childcare package introduced by the Coalition in 2018. The final report is due in 2021.

When the “snap back” was announced two weeks ago, the news about the rolling back of fee relief was accompanied by the surprise announcement that early years educators, primarily female, would be the first, and thus far the only, sector to see their access to the JobKeeper subsidy rescinded.

Lisa Annese, Chief Executive Officer of the Diversity Council, is worried. “I was hopeful when we had that mini experiment waving the cost of childcare to families, that people would see that childcare is a bit of an equaliser,” says Annese. “Unfortunately, I’m disheartened that the lesson appears not to have been learned.”

For Annese, that decision plays into the classic argument some like to use to explain away the gender pay gap, blaming it on women’s “choices”. She fears they will now give that “choices” narrative a pandemic spin. “It doesn’t pay for a lot of families to put their child in an extra day of childcare and return to work, and usually it’s the woman who pays that penalty because she’s often earning less money,” she says.

“Some people will look at that and say she’s making a ‘choice’ not to return,” adds Annese.

“What I say is that this family didn’t have a choice; a real choice would be publicly available childcare that was affordable, high quality, and that was equitably provided across the economy.”

In other parts of the world, childcare and education policy are likewise, notably out of step with the reality of family’s lives. In the US and the UK, for example, there’s a big push to get people back to work and re-open the economy, but in many cases childcare and schools are still closed. It’s not too hard to work out who will pay the price for that dis-connect.

Are pregnant and female employees with caring responsibilities “fair game”?

Two recent pieces, one in the New York Times and one in the Guardian, noted that legal assistance charities and family rights organisations in the US and the UK have seen a considerable surge in calls for assistance, particularly in regards to pregnancy discrimination or caring responsibilities. Those organisations have expressed concern that when we reach a point in this pandemic-related recession where further job losses bite, women with caring responsibilities and/ or pregnant women, who can no longer “hide” their caring responsibilities now that work is Zooming into their homes, will be the first on the block.

Here in Australia, Basic Rights in Queensland, formerly the Queensland Working Women’s Centre, has seen a 30 percent increase in calls for assistance related to the pandemic, according to Director Fiona Hunt, who compiled an exclusive report for Women’s Agenda. And while disability was the single biggest driver of those calls (and Women’s Agenda will explore that issue further) pregnancy discrimination and family responsibilities were the second and third most common reason for calls for assistance.

Those calls included a woman who was stood down from her position with a health service after asking for flexible hours to meet her COVID-19 related caring responsibilities.  Her husband, a shift worker, was still able to attend his workplace, so she requested to split her hours into a morning and evening shift in order to home-school her children. Her request was refused, and she was stood down.

JobWatch, an employment rights legal centre which operates out of Victoria but provides assistance to Victorian, Queensland and Tasmanian workers, has not seen the same increase in calls for assistance related to pregnancy discrimination or caring responsibilities, but Zana Bytheway, the Executive Director, suspects that is due to under-reporting.

“Pregnancy discrimination is a consistent and ongoing problem,” says Bytheway. “Women desperate to keep their jobs in such volatile conditions do not have the time nor the inclination to enquire about their rights, let alone complain about their working conditions,” she adds. “Too much is at stake.”

At the Diversity Council, Annese has also not (yet) seen evidence that the pandemic is fuelling discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy or caring responsibilities, but she agrees we must remain vigulent.

“I don’t know if we can make that direct link yet,” she says. “Simply because you’re a carer, you’re more likely to lose your job; being a carer has led many women to a type of relationship with an employer (highly casualised, in an industry like hospitality and retail, working part-time) that indirectly puts then at risk. “

But Annese has a warning — and a few words of advice — for employers tempted to take advantage of the current situation to declare open season on pregnant or female employees with caring responsibilities: “If they have any level of commitment to equality, equity and gender equality, which many say they do, employers need to have a heightened awareness of who is impacted by their decisions around downsizing or re-structuring.”

“Our research shows that employers who maintain that inclusive mindset will also survive better,” adds Annese. “They’re more likely to solve problems, have a more productive workforce…. all indicators that it’s good from a business and a recovery perspective, even if you don’t believe in the moral argument.”

Whether it’s the need for evidence-based policy, the business case, or the moral argument, or none of the above, that persuades Government and employers to engage with (and address) the deeply concerning likelihood of a pandemic motherhood penalty remains to be seen. Early indications are that we are on the path to a “blockcovery”, despite all evidence of a very gendered, “she-cession”. Some may even go so far as to call it a “mum-cession”.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwca

This is part one of a series of pieces Kristine Ziwica is producing on how COVID-19 is impacting women in Australia. The series is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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