WEN Café: women’s caring responsibilities during the Covid-19 pandemic

Friday July 31st, 2020

This month WEN Wales held our latest WEN Café online event on the theme of women’s caring responsibilities during the Covid-19 crisis. We were joined by two panellists – Carina White from Dope Black Mums, and equal parenting campaigner Sarah Rees. Women have taken on more caring responsibilities in the home since this crisis has started. Analysis from the Office for National Statistics estimates that women have spent more than 1.25 hours more per day looking after children during lockdown compared to men. Panellists and Café attendees alike shared their own experiences with childcare both prior to and during the coronavirus pandemic, and suggested solutions and policies to tackle the issues so many women have been facing.

In her opening, Sarah Rees summed up many of the issues at hand. Many women are juggling their own work and study, childcare, and home schooling. Exercising and taking care of mental health has been difficult. The ONS found that “there has been the largest change in reported levels of poor mental health between women who were providing support in 2017 to 2018 and women who were providing support in April 2020.” Carers need to be able to access mental health and wellbeing support. Some women have faced increased levels of domestic violence, and single parents have had little support.

Sarah works closely with the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. While supporting their phoneline she has received many calls from parents whose employers are pressuring them to return to work or the office, however they cannot because their children are not in school and there is no childcare provision. The four-week period when children went back to school meant that children had one or two days per week in school, and therefore there has not been a return to any previous level of childcare support. Sarah also pointed out that as women are still more likely to be the lower earners in a family, many were the first to be furloughed or to request furlough in order to take care of their children.

Carina made the pertinent point that while the theme of the Café refers to caring during Covid-19, childcare provision is an issue that pre-dates Covid and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The cost of childcare has long been a barrier that prevents many parents from accessing provision. Ordinarily many parents rely on family members, but this has not been possible during lockdown due to the restrictions in place. Flexible working policies are needed, and Carina expressed the belief that government should be putting the onus on employers to put such policies in place, including more opportunities to work from home, job shares, and part-time work.

WEN Wales Director Catherine Fookes, chairing the discussion, put forward WEN Wales’ position that the childcare offer should begin from 6 months old and should be more widely available and accessible to those such as the self-employed and students. Panellists and participants discussed the importance of wraparound care and the difference it can make to parents. As an example of good practice, Carina spoke of a nursery near her home in South London offering 24-hour wraparound care and how this has helped alleviate some of the barriers facing, for example, women working shifts.

We were also joined at the WEN Café by Alex Davies-Jones, MP for Pontypridd, who shared some of the issues her constituents have been facing. She identified that women are more likely to work in key frontline sectors such as the NHS and in social care, in supermarkets and in retail, putting their jobs at risk if childcare provision is unavailable. Childcare is also far from the only issue when discussing women’s caring responsibilities – women are not only caring for children but also for elderly parents or other family members and dependents unable to care for themselves.

Speakers and participants discussed the importance of normalising bringing children to work and the need for something to be done to encourage men to take extended paternity leave, work from home or leave work early to take care of children. There was agreement that a shift in culture is needed and policies must be put in place to facilitate this.

Carina spoke of how the Black Lives Matter movement has placed a spotlight on health inequalities for Black women; for example, a recent study showed that Black women are five times more likely to die during childbirth. Many women in the Dope Black Mums group have experienced racism and discrimination in a healthcare context. This in turn raised the issue of economic inequalities and the ethnicity pay gap that exists in addition to the gender pay gap, and the need to force companies to report on this.

Asked what policies she would put in place if she were Prime Minister, Carina suggested imposing flexible working policies on employers, a cap on how much private nurseries can charge, and bonuses for nurseries to open outside traditional hours.

If Sarah were First Minister she would put in place Universal Basic Income, potentially starting with a pilot for parents. With the summer holidays just beginning, summer holiday childcare provision is needed as a matter of urgency, particularly for parents who are key workers. Sarah cites the example of a key worker employed at Asda, who for the first time has been receiving key worker childcare support during the pandemic (offered to those with children under five). This has been transformational for her, as the vast majority of her paycheck is no longer spent on childcare.

The panel recommended several key policy solutions, which WEN Wales has shared with Welsh Government decisionmakers:

  • Free Universal Childcare for all and in the interim, at least free childcare for ALL from 6 months
  • Companies should be forced to report on their ethnicity pay gap
  • There should be a cap on how much private nurseries can charge
  • Force employers to offer more flexible working e.g. part-time roles, job shares, and opportunities to work from home
  • Bonuses for nurseries to open outside of traditional hours.

The WEN Cafe will be taking a break during August, but keep an eye out for details of September’s WEN Cafe coming soon.