The BBC has reported this week on the strain which the pandemic has placed on working mothers and female carers, and the long term impact this might have on gender equality in the workplace. Their report makes for sobering reading.

Every single person has faced challenges as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdown. I don't know anyone who has described this as anything other than a difficult period - and one which isn't over yet. 

However, speaking to my own experience as a working mother of two young children, it has proved particularly difficult to balance the demands of full time work with homeschooling and childcare. Lockdown has certainly proved the most stressful and challenging period in my career to date. 

In the wider context, I am fearful of the long term ramifications this period may have on working women, their mental health and their career prospects.

Women already face unconscious (or not so unconscious) bias in the workplace regarding their skills and capability. New research has found that the pandemic is exacerbating these inequalities.

Research by Catalyst, a global NGO that works to improve working conditions for women, has found that women have to work longer hours, and “prove themselves” to achieve the same career development as men. They found that women are often held to a much higher standard than their male counterparts. In effect, women have to work harder than their male counterparts to achieve less recognition.

The International Labour Organisation has reported that women still do ¾ of all unpaid care and domestic work.  This is hard enough to juggle in “normal times”.  

Many working mothers report feeling like they have already done a full day’s work before even starting their paid employment. They then face a “second shift” of childcare during the evening/night. 

Lockdown, school closures and no childcare means working mothers have found themselves facing an impossible task; simultaneously trying to work, care for their children and homeschool them. Inevitably this is impacting on women’s mental health, their performance at work and, inevitably, their long term careers.

Another worrying trend is that women’s careers and job prospects tend to be impacted more negatively than men in recessions and economic slowdowns. Research has shown this effect at all levels – from Board level positions to the lowest paid roles. Female Board members are less likely to be appointed or kept on where a business is experiencing hard times. At the other end of the spectrum, recession typically results in increased levels of female unemployment.

The current pandemic is particularly worrying because the sectors most affected are those where women are over-represented, namely the hospitality, retail and food sectors.

Might the pandemic yet be an opportunity for a fairer and more equitable workplace? Possibly, if businesses can embrace the new found flexibility forced on them by lockdown to enable all workers to balance their domestic responsibilities with contributing to the workplace.

However, it is a sobering thought that, even before the pandemic, researchers estimated that it would take a further century to achieve true gender equality in the workplace.  

If we are not mindful of these challenges, the pandemic could mean significant setbacks in gender equality; if we’re not vigilant, future discussions around women in the workplace might be focusing less on breaking through the “glass ceilings” and more on escaping from the “sticky floors”.