Nicola Kemp
Dec 15, 2020

Covid-19 risks turning back the clock on gender-equality gains

Recent government debate about cuts to nursery funding in the UK throws a spotlight on how the phenomenon of the 'third shift' risks pushing working mothers in the ad industry to breaking point.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In 1989 the researcher Arlie Hochschild coined the term "the second shift" to describe the additional work undertaken by women, who were found to still take on the lion's share of the household and childcare tasks despite their paid labour outside the home.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, I would argue that many working mothers are risking burnout having taken on a "third shift" of working late into the night after home-schooling and childcare responsibilities are completed. (That's before you get to baking the perfect Christmas cupcakes or whatever act of performative motherhood makes us Instagram-worthy that week.) The pressure to be all things to all people in the midst of this crisis is huge.

There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic has been economically and emotionally devastating for the creative industries. But the effects of this crisis have been disproportionately felt by women. In the midst of this pandemic, the "motherhood penalty" is costing many women across our industry their careers, their livelihoods and their sense of self-esteem. We must act now or we risk sleepwalking into the biggest threat to gender equality in our lifetime.

A catastrophic lack of childcare

Accessible and affordable childcare is a vital social infrastructure, yet research from the Early Years Alliance shows that one in six nurseries is set to close. This has a huge impact on working mothers in the industry who are struggling to access affordable childcare.

UK nurseries remain on a knife edge, with the government debating further cuts in funding last week (Thursday 3 December). The fact is that many parents in the industry don't currently have access to the childcare they need, or have had children isolating at home for much of this pandemic. And the implications of this are devastating.

Research released last week by UN Women, shows that, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, women in the UK are doing on average 30 hours of childcare a week, compared with 24 hours by men (a figure lower than the 26 hours women were doing pre-pandemic). Rsearch from McKinsey and, meanwhile, reveals that a quarter of working women are currently considering scaling back their career ambitions or leaving the workforce entirely.

The stories behind these cold statistics are ones of personal and professional turmoil. From the head of creative who felt like she had to turn down an incredible career opportunity because of a lack of childcare, to the account director who felt she had to simply carry on as though nothing had changed, despite having two children under the age of four self-isolating at home.

The mental load

Then, of course, there is the impact of that dreaded mental load, the omnipresent ticker tape; to-do lists that often go hand in hand with motherhood.

There is now the added white noise of high alert and anxiety. Layer in the symphony of WhatsApp messages, the rat-a-tat-tat of Slack and the digital presenteeism powered by back-to-back Zoom meetings, and it's easy to see why many working mothers are burning out.

Progress may have been made on creating a vaccine, but it is lacking on companies' mindfulness towards how Covid-related working from home is affecting work-life dynamics. As Christine Armstrong, founder of workplace consultancy Armstrong & Partners, recently found on her exploration of the "deep work" concept, the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is deeply gendered.

Put simply, the ability to completely switch off and focus is a privilege that few working mothers have been afforded in the current climate.

And it is not always children doing the interruption, women are also disproportionately carrying the emotional load in the office. Thankfully, women aren't automatically expected to "be mum" and pour the coffee in a Zoom meeting, yet they are often still overly leaned on for introductions and icebreakers.

Boundaries to build back better

As an industry, we are guilty of being extravagant with other people's time; an approach which for working mothers facing up to the demands of the third shift is simply unsustainable. So what are we going to do about it? First, we need to be intentional about building a future of work that works for everyone.

Wacl's #FlexibleFirst checklist and Standard/Leadership mark, in association with Campaign and backed by ISBA and the CMI, is a brilliant starting point.

As the boundaries between work and home have blurred, so too has our ability to find any semblance of meaningful space for ourselves or each other. So we also need to recognise the fact that building back better demands we be equally intentional about setting our own boundaries.

It's OK not to be able to drop everything to jump on a call at a moment's notice or reply to a Slack message immediately. It's OK to demand a little breathing space. Leaders need to step up and take personal responsibility for tackling the systemic bias that is leading to overworked and overwhelmed employees.

As we come to the end of a year like no other, it is impossible not to be buoyed by the incredible things that working mothers have achieved. Yet we also need to ask whether the price for success remains too high.

If we really want to tackle gender equality in the workplace, then we must challenge unsustainable ways of working in order to level the playing field. Because if you can't control your time, you can't control your career.

Nicola Kemp is editorial director at Creativebrief

Campaign UK

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