Well-being concern over mothers’ caring burden during lockdown

Survey and report by Women’s Higher Education Network urges universities to radically revise their attitudes to deadlines, career development and promotion

October 9, 2020
Source: iStock
Women working from home during lockdown often find themselves at the kitchen table surrounded by children

The Women’s Higher Education Network has surveyed more than 1,000 British parents employed in higher education professional services in an attempt to find out what the pandemic has meant for them and their careers.

The network conducted its survey between March and June 2020, when school closures and national lockdown increased the burden of caring and domestic responsibilities while reducing opportunities to outsource them, for example by employing a cleaner. The results have now been published in a report, Sharing the Caring.

“The lockdown was a unique opportunity to look at what goes on in the home when both partners have similar work commitments,” lead researcher Ivana Vasic, strategy, planning and risk manager at the Royal Veterinary College, told Times Higher Education.

In the survey, 75 per cent of female respondents said they were solely or mostly responsible for coordinating and organising children’s activities, while 64 per cent said the same about helping with children’s schoolwork.

“The overwhelming majority of women felt that domestic tasks were in their domain” – something not disputed by the male participants, Ms Vasic said. A common pattern was for mothers to have “working space at the dining room table where children were present all day. Organising activities in shared spaces, and doing the tidying, reduced their capacity for work.”

Mothers in dual-career households, according to the report, “continued to be predominantly responsible for childcare, household chores and duties for caring outside the home”, and the pandemic had only “exacerbated this, generated a substantial increase in responsibility and created significant challenges in their ability to do their jobs”. Meanwhile, the tasks taken on by their partners tended to be those with “less of a ‘mental’ and ‘emotional’ load, such as play or cooking meals”.

The impact of all this, continue the authors of the report, has been “a tremendous effect on well-being, sense of confidence and ability to work. In line with global findings about women being more likely to lose or leave their jobs due to the challenges arising from the pandemic, this raises an important concern regarding female economic disempowerment in the near- to long-term future.”

The report’s recommendations include urging universities to “consider short- and medium-term changes to promotion and appraisal processes”, to “reconsider deadlines, broaden success criteria and focus on output as opposed to ‘working hours’” and to “ask line managers to maintain an open dialogue with their staff, provide the opportunity to request help, reprioritise workloads or rethink professional development and career growth opportunities” without excluding those with childcare responsibilities in the misguided belief that it would “help”.

It would also be useful, added Ms Vasic, for university leaders to have “open and honest conversations” about the challenges they themselves had faced in achieving a work-life balance.

“Opening up about their life stories allows people to feel they can be effective workers and still be good parents,” she explained. “If leaders talk about that, it changes the culture.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Not sure this problem is that hidden. It is almost certainly a key reason so many people are reporting working much longer hours while they hold down jobs that have become increasingly demanding and juggled the additional demands on their time. Its across sectors too so not just something unique to education. That additional hours and the culture this supports seems to be continuing to varying degrees now the schools are open again is more of a concern (indicative of ongoing crisis) and something that needs serious consideration and action before we have a different crisis on our hands.