Is this lockdown particularly hard on women teachers?

With increased workload this lockdown, female teachers still do most of the childcare and housework, says Emma Sheppard

Emma Sheppard

Coronavirus school closures: Why the current lockdown may be harder for female teachers

As we settle into the routine of our second period of school closure, teachers’ experiences of remote learning will vary greatly. There will be challenging moments for all of us, regardless of our domestic set up. 

For teachers who are parents, there will be the additional practical burden of homeschooling their own children, or making the decision to use key-worker spaces so that they can meet the expectations of teaching in their virtual classrooms.

Almost half of our teacher workforce are parents of children under the age of 18. In a profession dominated by women, the experience of simultaneously teaching online and providing childcare is therefore likely to impact mothers overwhelmingly. 

Since our first full lockdown in March 2020, studies have suggested that the social effects of the pandemic have hit women depressingly hard. According to science journal The Lancet, the fact that “women earn less, save less…are the majority of single-parent households” means that “mothers in the UK were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either quit their job or lost it during the lockdown”. 

Coronavirus: Teacher as breadwinner

Unlike other female-dominated industries, such as hospitality and non-food retail, which have been almost frozen during successive lockdowns, a huge benefit of teaching as a profession is its job security. Our status as key workers highlights the continuing – if not amplified – need for our services. And so the redundancies currently shattering other industries are unthinkable in education. 

The experience of mother-teachers, therefore, will not involve the fear of unemployment, but the dread of another term of working two full-time jobs – only one of which is paid – and probably feeling as if they are doing a terrible job at both.

Anywhere between 56 and 68 per cent of teacher-parents are keeping their children at home during this second period of school closure, either by choice, because they did not qualify for key-worker places, or because their children’s settings have had to close entirely.

Of course, it is likely that a quarter of these respondents are fathers, as men make up 26 per cent of the teacher workforce, and many reports have noted that lockdown has brought about positive changes in fathers’ attitudes towards – and ability to be involved in – childcare. Whether the majority of the childcare and home-learning responsibilities are falling to mothers in education will depend on a number of factors, which add increased nuance to the gender trends we are seeing on a national and international level.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that a 2018 survey found that 64 per cent of teachers were the main wage earner in their partnership. Despite the fact that there is an 18 per cent gender pay gap within education, this suggests that teachers will be less affected by the “earn less, save less” trend identified in The Lancet

In fact, if the breadwinner’s role is to be protected in these times of economic difficulty, then arguably it will be the teacher in these couples whose job will be prioritised. However, in its May 2020 report surveying all sectors, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found: “Even in families where mothers were the higher earner before the crisis and both partners are still working, mothers still do more childcare and the same amount of housework as their partners.”

Combining work with childcare

It is understandable that prioritising a non-teaching partner’s role in this way was easier to do during our first lockdown. While non-teaching partners were trapped on nine-to-five conference calls, unable to contribute to childcare or homeschooling and fulfil their professional responsibilities simultaneously, many teachers were able to design remote-learning packs, set work online and catch up with administrative tasks flexibly around their family’s needs.

It wasn’t exactly plain sailing, but there was far greater freedom than the expectations teachers now face of delivering the entirety of their curriculum live, or at least being constantly available to answer student and parent queries on some form of online chat.

Even in the 24 per cent of couples where both partners are teachers, the fact that men are disproportionately represented in school-leadership positions is likely to affect the distribution of domestic responsibilities. 

It goes without saying that the past year has been horrifically stressful for school leaders, who are working tirelessly to keep our schools running smoothly. As well as the long hours they are working, senior leaders need to be on-site more than teaching staff during periods of school closure – which naturally means that they are absent from the home more often.

If men are more likely to be school leaders, therefore, then the responsibility for childcare in heterosexual teacher couples will fall to mothers.

More difficult to measure than the tangible data around pay, working hours and position are the cultural attitudes that recent studies have revealed still plague couples across the globe. Time and time again, research – both current and pre-Covid – has shown that mothers take on more unpaid labour than fathers, particularly when it comes to childcare and housework. 

Even in dual-earning couples, the IFS found that: “Mothers combine paid work with other activities (almost always childcare) in 47 per cent of their work hours, compared with 30 per cent of fathers’ work hours.” Meanwhile, mothers “are interrupted over 50 per cent more often” when they have been working from home during lockdown, in comparison with fathers.

Why leave education to the amateurs?

Similarly, a study by the University of Sussex on parenting during lockdown indicated that 73 per cent of mothers felt that they had become the “default” parent, most likely to “meet children’s needs when they arise, prioritising childcare over other things.” The same study also found that 70 per cent of women reported being “completely or mostly responsible for supporting children with home-learning”.

This last finding makes a great deal of sense for teachers. When it comes to our own children’s education, why would we leave it to an amateur, if we knew that we could do the job properly?

Although the University of Sussex’s findings reveal ingrained cultural stereotypes associated with mothers as nurturers, carers and natural teachers, teacher-mothers actually have a qualification and years of experience, which makes this stereotype true in our case. 

According to this logic, the expectation to take on the responsibility of homeschooling should be the same for teacher-fathers as it is for teacher-mothers, as they hold the same qualifications and expertise. 

However, an informal poll completed by The MTPT Project in June 2020 revealed that 42 per cent of fathers admitted to doing “not much” childcare, with only 17 per cent taking on “most of” it.

Conversely, 70 per cent of mother-teachers said they were doing “most of” the childcare.

With such figures – both cross-sector and specific to education – it is difficult to argue with the sense of dread that many teacher-mothers will be feeling as this lockdown continues.

However, with increased demands on all teachers’ time, couples may now be forced to have difficult conversations, in order to find workable solutions to a new lockdown context, which presents new challenges for us all. 

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/ PaternityTeacher Projectand a lead practitioner for English

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