Has COVID-19 set back diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Dr Jo Cartwright, lecturer in HR Management, writes that the COVID-19 lockdown exacerbates the juggling act facing working parents and carers, and exposes the undervaluing of care work.

Date: 03 April 2020

With the closure of schools and nurseries, many working parents are currently juggling paid employment with full-time care work and homeschooling for their children. In some professional occupations, there are instances where good practice employers are making workload adjustments for those with dependents (without an impact on their pay). However, this is patchy and likely to be the exception to the rule rather than the norm (professional not low paid occupations). There are also question marks how far this is being ‘trickled down’ by line managers.

The current situation means that working parents are effectively performing two jobs at once – paid employment and unpaid care work. This is leading to a very intense and stressful situation for many, impacting on their health and well-being if continued in the long run.

In terms of professional occupations, there are clear longer-term career progression implications since working parents will currently be working very ‘intensively’ i.e. focused on key priority tasks to ‘stay afloat’. It is unlikely that they will be to engage in the sort of career-enhancing activities that those without dependents may (paradoxically) have more time to engage in due to the current lockdown, with more free time at home.

This potentially creates a more uneven playing field and in both directions (since those without dependants may have more time on their hands to engage in career-enhancing activities). We need the state to recognise and value the important care work that parents are undertaking during this period, and develop welfare support to help protect the inroads we have been making around gender equality. For example, compensation for working parents who might need to take extended leave from paid employment to care for their children whilst in lockdown. This cannot be left to employers as it will be uneven/patchy.

Overall, this lack of support for families follows a tradition of undervaluing care work in the UK context, and the welfare response to COVID-19 and families is no different. This needs to change if the COVID-19 crisis continues and we want to protect the careers (but also sanity!) of working families in our population.

Dr Jo Cartwright