Related content; Part 2: Mental health – why we have to act now and Part 3: The catch 22 of flexible working

The widening of the gender divide

I’ll be honest – this is a series of articles I hadn’t wanted to write. I normally prefer to focus on support and development mechanisms for women in the veterinary industry. However, the more I’ve read since we were all plunged into this strangeness, the more I have felt compelled to shout from the rooftops that we need to do better for women in this crisis. More evidence just keeps rolling in – women are having it tough. Wave after wave of research, statistics and discussion are building to a tidal wave of gender inequality set to wash us back decades. Unless, of course, we start to take this seriously not just for the impact on individual women, but also our professions.

Women, Covid and veterinary practice – what are the issues?

There seem to be broad themes emerging of the impact of this current pandemic. The impact on work and finances is huge and obvious, but more insidious is the multiplicity of ways it affects women more than men. A topic which forms the focus of this first article. Secondly, and of huge importance, is the impact on our mental health. Again, multiple studies are showing how women’s mental health is experiencing more of a downturn than that of men. It’s important to understand why we both seeing a downturn and why there is gender disparity in order to be able to help and mitigate these effects on mental health – the focus of our next article. Finally, shift towards working from home and flexible working demanded of us during this period has highlighted both challenges and opportunities – especially for women – moving forwards. This will be discussed in the final article.

The negative impacts on women’s careers during Covid

What is increasingly apparent is the greater impact on women’s working life and careers than male partners (this article largely focusses on relationships with a male and female partner).

New research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and University College London (UCL) suggests that in homes where both parents are working, it’s the mums who are more likely to do the majority of housework and childcare. They interviewed 3,500 families and mums were only able to do one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by dads. I can relate to that!1 The closure of schools and childcare providers has compounded pre-existing disparities between how childcare is shared within families.

This has resulted in huge strain on vets with caring responsibilities. Having childcare provision suddenly withdrawn has resulted in inability to work, especially for single parent families. Discussions in the Vet Mums facebook group have shown the considerable variation in how these challenges have been met. Some vets have requested keyworker status for childcare, but the agreement for this on the part of schools and nurseries has been variable. This increases the likelihood – and indeed desire in many cases – of furloughing. While furlough may provide relief in the short term, the negative impacts of reduced income and absence of the self-esteem and social benefits of work will build over time. Where furlough has not been initiated by employers, veterinary women have reported taking holiday, unpaid leave or finding no other option other than to utilise childcare outside of the lockdown recommendations.

Even in two parent families where both are working, it is the woman shouldering the greater burden of childcare. Data gathered from 9-14 April showed that men in the UK typically spend under 2.5 hours on childcare and do less than two hours of home school. Compare this to women doing 3.5 hours and over two hours respectively. The gender divide was largest in higher income households, where women were occupied with the kids seven hours a day, compared to 4.5 hours for dads.2,3

Dr Christopher Rauh, an economist at Cambridge University noted, “People come up with explanations – like women are better at taking care of their children due to evolution – but if that were true, it shouldn’t apply to home-schooling. Yet we also see those differences here.”2,3

Similarly, Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, says the wider implications of the lockdown gender divide are clear. “This shows that the default assumptions about who does the caring for children fundamentally haven’t shifted. It defaults to women. There’s still an expectation that women will make their jobs fit around the caring, whereas a man’s job will come first.” She warns of the emergence of a two-tier workforce, with women at the bottom.3,4

The negative impacts on women’s employment during Covid

Women are not only finding it harder to juggle work while they take on the bulk of additional responsibility at home, they are also more likely to lose their jobs! A report carried out by the London School of Economics shows women will be more affected by the inevitable recession as a greater proportion work in sectors which are predicted to be hardest hit.5

“We have seen evidence from mothers that they are being penalised and not being supported to work from home because they have children. We’ve also seen mothers having to take unpaid leave or being dismissed.”1 – Dr. Olga Shurchkov

Women in the UK are 4% more like to have lost their job, with an even wider gap of 7% in the US. This gender job loss gap was shown to exist even after controlling for education, occupation and regional location within each country.

In the summary of outcomes from a similar study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Dr. Olga Shurchkov says, “We have seen evidence from mothers that they are being penalised and not being supported to work from home because they have children. We’ve also seen mothers having to take unpaid leave or being dismissed.”1

Women have also experienced a 26% wage drop compared to 18% for men. Remember, that’s superimposed on an existing gender pay gap, driving the wedge of inequality even deeper.5 This has wider socioeconomic ramifications as we know women tend to spend more of their salary on their family and funnel more money back into society.

Women in research – the gender gap

It seems even women’s academic and research output has even been adversely affected compared to men. An article in Nature highlighted that women’s publishing rate has fallen relative to men during the pandemic.6 Across disciplines, from economics, medicine, philosophy and science, women’s output and productivity has seen a disproportionate decline. CEO of the Philosophy Foundation, Emma Worley, believes “This is because most of our female philosophers are having to focus on childcare and home education.”

In addition, women are more likely to occupy mid-career posts in educational establishments. They tend to be more involved in teaching and lecturing than male counterparts, who have higher representation in senior research centred roles. It is the women, therefore, who are largely responsible for generating the online learning content which many courses are now reliant upon. So many have even less time for their own research under lockdown.

Unless educational establishments take steps to mitigate gender disparity during the pandemic, there is potential for mid-long term negative consequences for gender diversity in academia.

Women’s work – the return of the 1950’s housewife

Rediscovering domestic ‘bliss’?

I had to laugh to avoid sheer rage reading about how career women have rediscovered the simple joys of housework, knitting and cooking during lockdown. How we’d been so focussed on work and career we’d forgotten the simple pleasures of a stay at home lifestyle. And of course, the wonderful opportunity it presents to spend time with our kids and be actively involved in their education.

I’m not denying that there are simple pleasures to be enjoyed in cleaning, cooking and childcare, but for most of us they are certainly not a higher calling, which offers more satisfaction and enjoyment than career and work. Unless of course you want to back-track 70 years. Admittedly, it’s horses for courses, and having been thrust into the role of teacher and cleaner I know my course is decidedly different from these roles. The ground-hog day feeling of repeating the tasks around the home does not give me a sense of drive and progression, though I do not dispute it can give purpose. And I certainly feel satisfied for the 5 minutes the house is clean.

One of the most powerful motivators at work is a feeling of belonging, as highlighted by the BVA sponsored research by the University of Exeter.7 Working from home inevitably can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation from work colleagues and the sense of belonging may ebb. As women are more likely to be furloughed – the double-edged sword of being the primary childcare when other forms of care are closed – we lose out on the benefits of working in a team. As a locum who has lost all regular work with a team where I felt welcome and valued, I am feeling this more keenly as the pandemic fallout persists.

Thankfully, in my continuing diversified PR job with Companion Consultancy, I work with other strong career women and value regular catch-ups not just for the company, but also for the sense of worth, purpose and feeling part of the team. It’s a poor substitute for face to face contact, but goes a long way to maintaining the feeling of belonging. I can only imagine how hard it is for those without such a key motivator.

Women losing out in the long term

Increasing attention is being given to the long-term financial effects of reduced working hours and income for women throughout their career. The fact that more women are losing out financially during Covid control measures will have future pension penalties. If we want to be secure and self-sufficient financially in our twilight years, we have to act now to mitigate the negative impact on our income and pension contributions.

The impact on finances now has implications for future financial independence and security

What is the hope for women during this Covid crisis?

So how do we mitigate these negative impacts? Firstly, we must acknowledge there has been a widening of the gender gap across multiple areas, and to work harder to close it.

As with all challenges, opportunity can be found lurking at the periphery. Moving forwards embracing positive changes will take conversation and co-ordinated effort, but we have the chance to foster greater equality around traditional gender roles. Indeed, there are many heart-warming stories of women and men juggling equally all the non-work roles to facilitate each other’s work and career while meeting the needs of home and family. While women are still shouldering the majority of the burden, it is men who have proportionately increased their role sharing by 50%; a greater percentage change than for women.

Additionally, working from home is likely to become more socially acceptable. This could foster more gender parity in role sharing in the long term for both childcare and household responsibilities. The mental load of organising and planning – which largely falls to women – is compounded in the Covid-era by cancellations, reorganisation and logistical challenges. It’s a good time to encourage sharing of this insidious burden.

Career negotiations with your partner

Modern life requires a re-wiring of societal attitudes to traditional gender biased roles. Both sexes are now more often working than not, and the greater proportion of unpaid labour carried out by women leads to reduced time and opportunity to progress in their careers. However, culture takes at least a generation to change – and where bias (conscious or unconscious) exists it can take considerably longer.

For the short term, facilitating careers within a couple can be aided by open and honest discussion of goals, and division of labour accordingly. This dynamic ‘couples’ contract’ will change over time. Several templates exist online to provide some structure to such discussion, which may cause some tension before compromise is reached.8

If enough couples adapted to encourage one another’s careers, this could kick-start the societal change towards gender equality in unpaid labour and caring roles, which has historically moved at a glacial pace. For the retention and growth of female talent in the veterinary workplace, both the support of career progression, and the shouldering caring and household responsibilities must become more equally shared.

Be part of the solution

Awareness is the first step to addressing problems – so thank you for reading! If you are interested in getting involved in the discussion of the issues raised in this article please get in touch. We want to hear your experiences and ideas how we can better facilitate women in the workplace through and beyond Covid. To be representative we need diverse representation, and would like to invite women from across the industry to take part. Follow our facebook page for upcoming polls to feed into this work, and please email us info@veterinarywoman.co.uk if you would like to share your story or contribute in any way.

1 https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14860

2 https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/women-bear-brunt-of-coronavirus-economic-shutdown-in-uk-and-us

3 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/i-feel-like-a-1950s-housewife-how-lockdown-has-exposed-the-gender-divide

4 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/business/risk-creating-two-tier-workforce-women-will-bottom/

5 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-childcare-homeschooling-women-lockdown-gender-a9512866.html

6 https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/decline-women-scientist-research-publishing-production-coronavirus-pandemic

7 https://www.bva.co.uk/media/2990/motivation-satisfaction-and-retention-bva-workforce-report-nov-2018-1.pdf

8 https://time.com/5695096/relationship-couple-contract/

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