A mothers’ many roles: how childcare impacts young women’s employment opportunities

Blog posts

25 Aug 2020

Beth Mason

Beth Mason, Research Officer

Last week I discussed how Covid-19 has affected people’s financial security and I spoke to Young Women’s Trust about the specific impact this is having on young women. Being able to access good quality employment is key for young women’s financial security but access without adequate childcare means many young women are at a disadvantage for entering and staying in work.

Throughout the lockdown period working mothers were heavily relied upon to juggle childcare, home-schooling and their work. Mothers working from home during lockdown continued to take on more childcare and home-schooling responsibilities compared to working from home fathers (IZA, 2020) and spent on average two hours more each day on childcare than fathers (Resolution Foundation, 2020). Managing these competing roles can have a negative impact on a mothers mental health, and their engagment at work as they are unable to perform and contribute to the best of their ability.

Meanwhile, mothers are one-and-a-half times as likely to have lost work or quit since lockdown than fathers and more likely to be have been furloughed (IFS, 2020). Young mothers are already having to contend with a poorer vacancy market and greater labour market competition with more than four times as many claimants for every vacancy compared to before the pandemic (IES).

Without access to adequate childcare, young women’s ability to take up new opportunities is significantly limited and in some households there may be a trade-off between which parent returns or remains in work – a negotiation typically decided based on who is the higher earner.

I discussed how access to childcare during Covid-19 is affecting young women with Georgie Whiteley, Research Lead at Young Women’s Trust:

The childcare system was already failing young mothers before the pandemic, especially those on low or no pay. The support on offer is expensive, insufficient and inflexible. Our research found that one in three young mums have left a job because they couldn’t afford childcare and 57 per cent of young mums have been unable to take a job because of a lack of suitable childcare (YWT, 2019).

Our recent research found that juggling work, childcare and home-schooling has placed a huge strain on young women’s mental health and made it even harder for them to work. The Job Retention Scheme began winding down before schools and childminders were fully operational and the family support that many parents relied on remained restricted. As a result, many young mums will be unable to work, especially single mothers. The government has ignored the need for childcare in its response to Coronavirus. Unless this changes, even more young women will be shut out of the labour market.

Kira, shares her experiences:

My little boy hasn't been to nursery since lockdown. I'm not currently working, although I was just before the lockdown, so I have been looking after him at home. At the beginning of lockdown it was nice to stop rushing around and have that time with my son. But as the weeks have gone on things have got harder.

Mental health is not something I thought about much before this time but being stuck indoors with my little boy all day has been difficult. I don't have a lot of family support so it has been very isolating. Resources have also been a big issue. There is so much for my son to do at nursery but at home, we sometimes run out of things at home and I feel guilty. They put some worksheets up on the nursery Facebook group but I don't have a printer.  

When it comes to childcare, I have the same issues I had before lockdown. A huge point is needing more funded hours per week, especially for two-year-olds. My son is three now, but when he was two he could only have 16 hours of free childcare. It was really difficult when I was looking for a job to find one that I could do for just a few hours a day. Without the free childcare, I would spend so much of my wages on childcare costs that it didn’t make sense to work. Universal Credit puts a lot of pressure on mums to go back to work but they need to create more funding for childcare so we can afford to go to work. 

Everyone is saying there will be lots of big changes because of Covid-19 and I feel like there really needs to be. Childcare needs to be relooked at altogether and I think this period has brought that to light.

The situation with schools and childcare has yet to be fully resolved. In theory, childminders can return to work and schools are due to reopen for all ages but uncertainties remain regarding attendance of children with symptoms, settings closed due to staff illness, premises being shut, or forced to close due to loss of income, and the impact of further outbreaks. Any of these are likely to cause women to have to take more time out of work or away from job-seeking. These factors run alongside the reluctance of many parents at the prospect of having to send their child back to school or nursery.

In a highly competitive job market mothers need additional support to be able to dedicate the time necessary to successfully search and apply for jobs. It could be argued that the childcare benefit should be extended to those who are unemployed and most in need of the support. The childcare barrier remains for mothers wanting to access apprenticeships or training via the Kickstart scheme and policies similar to the Learner Support scheme need to be included in these packages to enable mothers to access these new opportunities.

It will also be vital for employers to recognise that the experiences of working mothers may not be all as it seems in the Government guidelines and options need to be in place to enable young women to stay in work. Providing working mothers with continued flexible working options could afford them a key lifeline to juggle their many roles, however this must not impact their other opportunities for development or progression as I discussed in my first blog of this series. Alternatively, employers could consider offering schemes such as salary sacrifice for childcare vouchers which could enable mothers to access alternative childcare options.

I hope that this series of blogs has shone a light on the impact Covid-19 has had on young women’s mental health, financial security, and access to childcare and has highlighted the need for policy-makers and employers to recognise the barriers this particular group face in the recovery. Continued flexibility and support from employers, and ensuring young women are included within the Governments response will be key to guarantee they are not left behind.

Young Women's Trust is a feminist organisation working to achieve economic justice for young women. 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.