Has COVID-19 brought new issues to the table, or just highlighted inequalities that already existed?
A recent survey investigating the socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 national lockdown has shown that, of the estimated three million job losses in South Africa between February and April 2020, twice as many jobs were lost by women than men. While many factors are at play here, the sudden added domestic responsibilities – the bulk of which still tend to fall on women – cannot be ignored.
A juggling act
This is according to Fiona Leppan, a Director in Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr’s Employment Practice, who questions whether South African employers are sufficiently receptive to the additional burden of family responsibility that has been introduced over lockdown. “With the extended closure of schools, families suddenly had to balance childcare, home-schooling and employment – a juggling act that took strain on many working parents.”
Unfortunately, Leppan says that few employers took this added pressure into account. “What I noticed when speaking to my clients, is that many employers were expecting their employees to carry on as normal – something that just isn’t always possible. Nobody could have planned for the disruption that COVID-19 and the ensuing national lockdown would have caused, and many people – especially working parents – were just not coping.”
While acknowledging that this should, in theory, be an issue that impacts working mothers and fathers alike, Leppan notes that in reality, this just isn’t the case. “Despite female labour-force participation having seen a stark increase over the years, studies have shown that, globally, females still carry out roughly three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work of males.”
Looking forward, Leppan believes that this domestic work ratio is likely to get even further skewed with the increased prevalence of work-from-home (WFH). “Studies suggest that while women are more likely to carry out additional domestic responsibilities while working from home, men are more likely to prioritise their professional responsibilities.
“So for families with two working parents, the shift to WFH will likely result in fathers prioritising their work more, while mothers turn more of their focus towards family responsibilities – something that will certainly hamper the future professional prospects of mothers in the workplace.”
In the absence of local research to support this claim, Leppan points to an English survey conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and University College London between April and mid-May – when the region was in their strictest phase of lockdown. “After surveying more than 3500 parents in opposite-gender two-parent households, the study revealed that working mothers were spending less time on paid work and on domestic responsibilities – working an average of two fewer hours a day when WFH.”
To prevent women from being unfairly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, a policy brief by the United Nations recommended expanding childcare support for working parents where schools, childcare and respite care services are closed. While several countries, like New Zealand and Australia, have taken this suggested approach by subsidising certain childcare costs, Leppan notes that this is very unlikely to ever happen in South Africa.
“Unfortunately, it is likely that South African parents will ultimately be expected to absorb the new financial stress that has come with lockdown. It is therefore crucial that local businesses and employers take this added pressure into account and show leniency to working parents – especially mothers – over this tough and demanding period,” she concludes.
Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr’s Employment Practice