Voices

The motherhood penalty is killing women’s creative careers in the coronavirus crisis

Women’s careers are in danger of becoming collateral damage in the pandemic. Here’s what you can do about it.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“It really goes to show what happens when women aren’t in the room,” Sarah Ronan, Operations Manager of Pregnant Then Screwed explains with precision what lies behind the catastrophic failure to address the lived experiences of working mothers in lockdown. A lack of understanding and a subsequent lack of support of the childcare sector which has led to a phenomenal exodus of talent from the creative industries. 

“Women are rightly angry about this,” Ronan says. “A lot of dads are recognising the day to day challenges of working and parenting and a lot of men have realised that it is just not possible.”

This anger was reflected in the speed at which 20,000 women completed Pregnant Then Screwed’s landmark research into the experiences of pregnant women and working mothers in the coronavirus crisis. The research, which was highlighted on the front page of The Guardian, paints a bleak picture of how coronavirus is killing women’s careers.

Almost half (46%) of employed mothers that have been made redundant or expect to be made redundant have said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. While 72% of mothers have had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues. And 65% of mothers who have been furloughed say that a lack of childcare was the reason.

To make someone redundant not on their ability but because they are a mother is outrageous, and it needs to stop.

Joeli Brearley

Childcare as infrastructure

The research underlines the gaping void in family life left by the lack of childcare provision during the crisis. Of the employed mothers surveyed 81% said they need childcare to be able to work, but over half (51%) do not have the necessary childcare in place to enable them to do their job.

Self-employed mothers are being dealt new lows according to this new data which has revealed that 74% have had their earning potential reduced because of a lack of access to childcare; 44% of self-employed mothers have had to give up their childcare space during COVID, which is up from 33% for employed mothers. 

Joeli Brearley, CEO and Founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, explains: “That 15% of employed mothers have been made redundant or think they will be in the next six months, is huge and it’s terrifying. To add insult to injury though almost half of these attribute a lack of childcare to the decision. This is discrimination in its purest sense. To make someone redundant not on their ability but because they are a mother is outrageous, and it needs to stop. While this data is shocking, it should also serve as a warning to employers.”

“There is so much complacency,” adds Ronan. “Childcare is infrastructure and what we are seeing here are the results of government and employers neglecting family friendly practices.” A situation which she believes has led to childcare all too often defaulting to women.

65%
of mothers who have been furloughed say that a lack of childcare was the reason
72%
of mothers have had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues
74%
of self-employed mothers have had their earning potential reduced because of a lack of access to childcare

The challenge for the creative industries

The crisis is having a significant impact on the creative industries. As Ronan explains: “We know the creative industries have a big issue with flexible working which is why they have haemorrhaged talent into the self-employed space.” A space which has also been neglected by the government, leading to the organisation to start legal proceedings against the government, after it failed to take account of maternity leave when working out average earnings. 

“Self-employed mothers have had their earnings cut dramatically and some of the stories we have heard show the strain they are under,” adds Ronan. The organisation has been collecting case studies which shine a light on the lived experiences and harsh realities of life in lockdown and in the workplace for pregnant women and working mothers. (See below)

“Women are frantic watching the jobs they have worked so hard for disappear,” explains Ronan, who notes this has been particularly acute amongst freelancers. “There have been unreasonable expectations for parents to get back to work on the eve of the summer holidays starting. It’s a lack of empathy and a complete lack of foresight,” she adds.

It’s a lack of thought, or recognition of women’s lived experiences which is having a catastrophic effect. As Ronan says: “Some of the calls [to Pregnant Then Screwed’s advice line] have been so distressing, people are having to take a huge financial hit and they simply aren’t aware of their rights in redundancy.”

She notes that the government response that recovery is possible without childcare is an assumption and weight which is carried on the back of working mothers. This is sometimes coming at the cost of the mental health of working mothers. “It is an economic recovery designed by men for men,” Ronan notes. 

You can’t get to work if there is no childcare. Stop looking at this as a woman’s issue or there will be no V-shaped recovery.

Sarah Ronan

Doing things differently

So, what can companies do differently and where should empathetic leaders look for examples of companies getting it right? “The importance of role modelling cannot be underestimated. I’ve seen men and women alike having their kids in video calls, walking the walk. A strong culture of role modelling is so important. We have all worked late into the night and leaders giving a name to that stress and being human and transparent with it enables people to have a voice,” explains Ronan.

“Employers need to consider what they are doing about childcare. Many people are unable to operate at full capacity or to traditional working hours” she adds. Ronan points to the path paved by Patagonia, which has on-site childcare facilities, an approach which drastically improves staff retention. 

“Childcare is infrastructure; 67% of key workers had to work less hours because of a lack of childcare,” notes Ronan, pointing to the fact that childcare is just as much infrastructure as Transport for London. “You can’t get to work if there is no childcare. Stop looking at this as a woman’s issue or there will be no V-shaped recovery,” she warns.

For those companies who remain complacent on this issue there are also clear legal ramifications. As Brearley explains: “An organisation that lets caring responsibilities colour their judgement during redundancy consultations or selections could be leaving themselves open to claims of sex discrimination.”

Rather than sleepwalking into a crisis of equality, Brearley believes that leaders need to wake up. She explains: “We need to see provisions in place to support mothers who are struggling with childcare through no fault of their own. We need the government to open its eyes to the gender imbalance that COVID-19 is inflating, and we need to help pregnant women and mums to be treated on merit, not on how many kids they have. The time to change this is now."

Hit the reset button: What you can do to stop the rising tide of gender inequality

Pregnant Then Screwed’s Sarah Ronan on the positive steps businesses can take to stop the mounting equality crisis. 

  • The current climate has made compartmentalisation impossible; you cannot help but bring your whole self to work. I hope that encourages real change. We now have the opportunity to be honest about what we could have done better and what we plan to do better in the future.
  • One thing we are really trying to get across when it comes to redundancy and selection criteria is don’t look at the last few months as a measure of productivity.
  • Think about being the most inclusive you can be. It's really important not to take your foot on the gas with Diversity and Inclusion. We know the most productive and successful workplaces are the most diverse.
  • Working mothers have picked up the slack from all corners in the last few months. Their ability to take so much on speaks volumes about what women can achieve.
  • Employers need to take a period of reflection as to what they can do to support women in their organisations and drive change through equal opportunity. Make all jobs flexible by design; don’t wait for government legislation, make the change now.
  • Ditch the lip service, the policies and initiatives that haven’t made the change. Candidates will be looking at the companies that adapted well and supported their employees with empathy.