Instead of “leaning in,” we’re being forced to lean out—and I’m worried about what that means for our careers long-term.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, I’ve been noticing a worrying trend among the women in my social circles: moms who were able to keep their jobs at the start of the shutdown are now dropping out of the workforce. Every time I log on to my neighbourhood Facebook groups, I see more and more posts from panicked women asking for advice on how to tender their resignation or request a leave of absence and apply for CERB (the Canada Emergency Response Benefit). Over Zoom cocktails and group chats, friends and colleagues in hetero relationships lament turning down work in order to focus on childcare while their male partners spend their workdays shut away in basement offices. These are women who, just two months ago, had flourishing careers. Now they’re being forced to make the Sophie’s choice of our time: your job or your kids.
I consider myself a fairly informed feminist, but pre-March 2020, I never would have imagined that highly successful women could be rocketed back to 1950s housewife status in a matter of months. Colour me naive.
At first, we thought we could muddle through, balancing school assignments and diaper changes with video conferences and deadlines (if we were lucky enough to be able to work from home to begin with). Now, nearly nine weeks into this dystopian nightmare, it’s become abundantly clear that balancing childcare and work isn’t tenable. But who is paying the price for that? Labour data from March was grim: women accounted for 62 per cent of job losses and we lost 50 per cent more work hours than men. Those numbers evened out in April as male-dominated industries started taking a hit. But as schools and child care remain closed for the majority of the country—and with no word on what will happen with camps and daycares over the summer—I’d bet my monthly wine budget we’ll see job losses continue to rise for women.
In fact, economists are calling the current financial crisis not a recession but a “she-cession,” meaning women are being hit the hardest. One reason is that women hold the majority of so-called “social” jobs (such as yoga instructors, servers, hairstylists, daycare workers and hotel employees). Another reason: the pandemic-related uptick in domestic labour is landing squarely on our shoulders.
Last week, the New York Times published a story with this thumb-stopping headline: “Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree.” Sure, we all giggled at it. Moms shared the link alongside cry-laughing emojis. But the truth is that women often still do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare and housework, pandemic or not. (Note I said “often,” not “always.” Guys, don’t @ me.) According to Statistics Canada, women spend an average of 3.9 hours per day on the unpaid labour of domestic chores compared to men’s 2.4. That gender gap seems to be widening in isolation now that the support systems we once relied on are no longer available to us. The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the inequalities that have always been there. If overseeing childcare has always fallen to the female parent, guess who will take charge of homeschooling? If a woman earns 87 cents on the dollar compared to her male partner, whose job do you think will take precedence when couples have to choose who quits and who keeps working? These are the questions keeping me up at night.
Also filling me with dread is the idea that bosses will start discriminating against women at work. Will ongoing school, camp and daycare closures mean we’ll be deemed undesirable hires once the economy “re-opens?” I’m already seeing moms posting on Facebook about managers chastising them for not fully committing to their jobs during the pandemic. One mom with little kids wrote that her boss reprimanded her for not spending eight hours straight at her computer when her male counterparts were able to do so. She was somehow fitting eight hours of work around her kids’ needs and bedtimes, but that still wasn’t enough. Infuriating, right?
I count myself extremely lucky to be able to work from home with a flexible schedule during this time. We only have one kid (which makes things both easier and harder). My husband and I have almost nightly conversations about whether we’re equally distributing domestic tasks and time spent caring for our five-year-old daughter. Right now, for the most part, we are. But I’m self-employed, while my husband has a steady government job with benefits. That means that I’m more often putting my work on the back-burner. We need to pay the mortgage after all, and his is the job we can rely on.
The truth is, I’m simply working less during the pandemic. I know that is an extremely privileged position—many parents are on the front lines away from their children at this very scary time. And shifting my focus away from my work has also, in some ways, been a good thing. This morning my daughter and I painted rocks from the garden, had a duel with Princess Nella swords and read a chapter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all before noon. On a weekday! I’m getting to see her imagination develop in a way I likely would have missed had she been at school. A lot of parents I’ve spoken to are relishing the extra time with their littles and the reduced stress of not having to commute between the workplace and various after-school pick-ups.
I’ve also noticed an increasing acceptance of parents’ obligations. In the “before times,” I went to great lengths to keep my kid quiet during conference calls. Now, when she pops into a Zoom with a client, I encourage her to say hello. Hey, if Jimmy Fallon can do his monologue while his daughters climb on his head, I think we can all be cool with the fact that kids are sometimes going to interrupt our work lives—whether we’re working from home or not.
I hope some of these positive changes will stick, post-pandemic, and serve to make things better for working parents. This forced slowdown is shining a bright light on just how burned out many of us were before, when we were exhausted by the constant juggle of “leaning in.” And if you’re one of the moms who’s grown to love this work-at-home or stay-at-home lifestyle during the shutdown, please know that it isn’t a betrayal of your feminist ideals. Our kids need us right now and enjoying the time we spend with them—if we’re privileged to have it—doesn’t mean that women don’t deserve fulfilling and well-compensated working lives.
When we look at the long-term, however, my inner pessimist worries that COVID-19 is going to set feminism back decades. As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I grew up secure in the knowledge that I could have both a family and a job. I worked damn hard to build a career that I love and it’s a big part of my identity. If the pandemic forces me to scale it back or put it on hold, who will I be then? What will my daughter grow up believing is possible for her?
If we’re going to get out of the steep economic downturn this virus is leaving in its wake, we have to start talking about how we’re going to support moms—and all women—in getting back to work. That’s inextricably tangled up with child care. Any provincial press conferences about the school year or the reopening of the economy need to address the elephant in the room for many parents: What are we supposed to do with our kids all day?
On a micro level, we also need dads to step up at home and push back at work. We need bosses to accommodate all parents as we navigate this uncharted territory. It’s time for a shift in the way families dole out childcare responsibilities, and this pandemic is showing us we’re well overdue.
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