Jonathan McHugh illustration of Camilla Cavendish column
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

Who do you fire first? As this crisis scythes through the economy, bosses are making painful decisions about who to let go. New hires, especially the young, are always at risk from the phenomenon of “last in, first out”. Old hires can start to look expensive. But while other postwar economic downturns have been “man-cessions”, this one is hitting women harder.

That’s not how it looked at the start of this crisis, with “male sectors” looking vulnerable and men at greater personal risk from Covid-19. Yet in the US, women accounted for 55 per cent of jobs lost in April, compared to only 22 per cent during the 2008 financial crisis. In the UK, 17 per cent of women reported being newly unemployed that month, compared to 13 per cent of men.

This reversal is partly because coronavirus has devastated the services jobs that were more resilient to previous recessions. Male-dominated manufacturing and construction were hardest hit in the financial crisis: this time, social distancing has damaged hospitality, leisure and retail, where many women work in customer-facing positions.

The last man-cession wasn’t simply about industry mix: in the US, men were hit disproportionately hard in almost every sector except financial services, where women lost jobs at a higher rate.

One explanation is that companies cut their most expensive staff, who tended to be male, and kept those in more flexible, part-time work, often women. Ten years on, there are more women in senior positions who look expensive. But a big difference during this crisis has been the need to juggle paid work with home schooling, domestic chores and sometimes looking after ailing relatives. 

As parents are stretched to breaking point, progress towards gender equality is quietly draining away. While fathers are also under pressure, British mothers are one and a half times more likely than fathers to have permanently lost or left their jobs during lockdown. The impact of this will be all the greater, because there were a record number of mothers in the UK workforce before the pandemic struck: 75 per cent in 2019, compared to 66 per cent in 2000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

It is not yet clear how much damage will be permanent. In the short term, more parental attention is generally good news for children. But while many parents treasure the enforced time with their offspring, they are also struggling. I recently spoke to the mother of an autistic son whose carers cannot visit safely at the moment. He doesn’t understand coronavirus: he blames her for the change in his routine.

Even those facing less extreme challenges, but who fear the kids are going feral while they are glued to Zoom meetings, have taken unpaid leave or requested furlough to get through this period. The risk is that these working mothers are more likely to be selected for redundancy. Even those who cling on may decide to prioritise a higher-earning husband, if offices reopen before nurseries do.

Mothers are also far more likely to be interrupted than fathers, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In my household, I am usually the first to be plagued with questions about homework, missing clothing, injuries caused by impulsive DIY projects or, as yesterday, by my 10-year-old crashing a bicycle while wearing no shoes. I grudgingly admit that I would feel upset if they turned to my husband more regularly than me.

But there’s no doubt that having the bandwidth to focus puts you ahead. Susan Pinker, in her book The Sexual Paradox, tells the story of one American university which offered extended parental leave to academic couples, only to find some fathers using the time to write their next book.

Lower down the scale, an increase in female unemployment will be devastating for families. The majority of single parents are female. Women still earn less, save less and are over-represented in low paid, insecure jobs, and that’s doubly true for some ethnic minority communities. Women in Britain from minorities are reporting higher concerns about debt after the pandemic than either white women or men. In the UK, some Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are suffering acutely: they tend to have relatively few women in work and the men are reliant on a narrow range of jobs.

Not all the gains of recent years have to be lost, however. The crisis could end up being positive for gender equality in the longer term if employers and spouses alike become more aware of the burden of child rearing and housework that women carry.

A group of researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, believe there will be a culture change as a result of the fact that, in some families, women have been the key workers in this crisis, with men having to shoulder more domestic chores. They argue that such changes often persist: in Spain and Germany for example, fathers who take “Daddy months” of paternity leave become subsequently more involved in childcare.

No one yet knows how deep this recession will be, or how long. But right now, it looks as though difficult decisions by individual companies will collectively roll back some hard-won progress. Women are not recession-proof.

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