Has Covid brought women closer together?

A new study in the US shows women have bonded more over their Covid childcare and homeschooling experience.

Tired women at work


Much of the Covid-related research on women and work has been of a negative nature. We all know that women have taken on most of the caring responsibilities and that it has been harder for them to work their regular hours as a result. We know from our polls how stressful this has been, particularly for parents of younger children, and about the impact at work. We received desperate emails throughout the lockdowns from women, their partners and even women’s parents expressing concerns about the mental impact of doing everything simultaneously.

Covid is likely to have a long tail and, even though things have opened up, the impact is ongoing. Childcare is still not back to normal, particularly for special needs children, with some areas of the country worse affected than others. Ditto social care. Exhaustion tends to be a cumulative thing and mental health can be a slow burner. We know children’s mental health is much worse since the pandemic and anxiety higher. The impact of this on parents is huge.

There are also many worries about the cost of living crisis and a sense that public services are completely overstretched, with massive Covid backlogs.

In the midst of this there are promises from Prime Ministerial candidate Liz Truss of tax cuts, which suggest less money will be available for public services. Moreover, with childcare issues in the news Truss’ answer to the infrastructure problems parents face seems not to be more support for childcare, but to encourage women to stay at home through tax changes. While that may be appealing to some, how realistic is it in a context of labour shortages across the workforce? And what will the knock-on effects be on women’s ability to earn when their children are older if they take longer out of the workforce earlier on? We know that getting back into the workforce on anything approaching the same level as you left it is challenging, despite some amazing returner programmes. As for Rishi Sunak, so far there has been no word about childcare, which is in keeping with his recent record. For instance, there was not one mention of childcare in this year’s spring statement.

Workingmums.co.uk will continue to track the ongoing effects of pandemic-related exhaustion, although the pandemic only exacerbated existing issues. But in the midst of all these concerns about the bad effects of Covid a study last week brought some interesting positives. The US study by Christopher Stout, Kelsy Kretschmer and Leah Ruppanner showed that, while the Covid pandemic compounded existing gender inequality, the gendered impact of the pandemic may have disproportionately fostered a sense of a common bond among women who altered their employment because of the pandemic. The researchers write: “We find that White and Black women who altered their employment to take care of family displayed higher levels of gender linked fate than others.”

It will be interesting to see if the same occurred in the UK and whether Covid forged greater solidarity between women. Certainly, women’s groups seem to have coalesced more over the last years around the idea that childcare should be part of essential infrastructure. There is also more and more activism around the gender pension gap, which represents the culmination of all the additional challenges women face in relation to the division of unpaid labour. What is needed is recognition at the centre of government of the vital role women play in keeping everything going and more than piecemeal action to support them.

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