COVID-19 and women’s care responsibilities: Opportunities to transform gender relations

In South Africa and worldwide, women’s care responsibilities affect their ability to look for work and remain in employment. COVID-19 has highlighted this trend, with mothers around the world taking on the majority of the domestic burden in the face of school closures and remote working.(1) Tackling childcare inequalities and the structural barriers to working mothers succeeding in the labour force have the potential to transform women’s work–life balance and increase their chances of becoming employed and remaining in employment.

Although South Africa has a raft of legislation and policies aimed at promoting women’s economic participation and employment, women have consistently been underemployed in comparison to men. Over the last decade, women have experienced higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of labour force participation.(2) Young women are also more likely than young men not to be in employment, education, or training.(3) In addition, the gender wage gap means that, when women do work, they are paid less for work of equal value (women’s remuneration is around 75% of that of their male counterparts).(4)

Legislation and policy can only go so far in remedying the situation, and it is vital that families, individuals, and workplaces pursue personal and structural reforms to enhance women’s economic empowerment. This includes transforming gender norms of care and domestic labour, and creating workplaces that support both mothers and fathers.

Women and childcare prior to COVID-19

Gendered norms of childcare are holding women back from full and equal economic participation, and it will take a collective effort by individuals, companies, and government to change this reality.

Prior to COVID-19, gendered norms of domestic labour meant that South African women undertook most of the (unpaid) household cleaning and childcare.(5)(6) Women spent an average of 107 minutes (one hour and 47 minutes) more per day on this work than men did, and were far more likely than men to say that it was usually or always they who did the laundry, cared for sick family members, shopped for groceries, did the household cleaning, and prepared the meals (Table 1, below, shows these proportions).

Table 1: Division of household labour(7)

It is always me who…Proportion of MenProportion of Women
…does the laundry12.1%82.2%
…cares for sick family members16%61.8%
…shops for groceries14.3%54.2%
…does the household cleaning12.7%78.1%
…prepares the meals14.8%85.8%

These gendered patterns of labour start early on, and have an impact on girls’ ability to complete their primary and tertiary education. Although the majority of school dropouts is linked to a lack of money for fees for both boys and girls, the second leading cause of girls not attending or finishing school is “family commitments”, including getting married, minding children, and pregnancy. This is the least likely reason boys cite for not attending school.(8)(9) Similarly, at university level, young women are more likely than young men to cite family responsibility as the reason for dropping out.(10)

Female-headed households tend to be larger and extended, with the result that women frequently care for multiple family members.(11) Where parents are not living together, children are far more likely to live with their biological mothers than their biological fathers, though this does not imply that the woman is the only adult in the household.(12) If children do not live with their parents, they are commonly cared for by another female relative.(13)(14)

These gendered norms have long affected women’s ability to work and remain in employment. They affect the subjects women take and the careers they can subsequently enter. Women are more likely to enrol in subjects related to care work at university,(15) and the care work labour force in South Africa is profoundly gendered.(16) Women are also more likely than men to cite care responsibilities as having hampered their ability to travel to work.(17) For middle- and upper-income families, some of this care work and domestic labour is likely to be outsourced to another woman, such as a domestic worker or nanny. These women do not have this option, and must either take their children with them or leave them at home with a (likely female) relative.(18)

This was the status quo before COVID-19. Women took on the childcare burden at the expense of employment. COVID-19 exacerbated this.

COVID-19’s impact on women’s childcare burden and ability to work

In March 2020, the South African government declared a National State of Disaster(19) and instituted a strict lockdown that was given effect through regulations. These regulations resulted in the closure of schools, universities, and early childhood development (ECD) centres for several months. Many workplaces were closed, and, where feasible, workers were asked to work remotely. Where this was not possible, workers lost their jobs. An estimated 60% of South African workers subsequently experienced a complete loss of or a significant decline in personal income.(20)

The closure of schools meant that many parents were trying to juggle working from home with schooling and caring for their children. Research shows that, in South Africa(21) and globally,(22)(23) women bore the weight, with deleterious impacts on their employment, pay, and health.

In South Africa, women’s employment losses were larger than men’s, and, by October 2020, when lockdown restrictions were eased and some schools reopened, women still lagged behind men in reaching their pre-COVID employment levels.(24) Women were also working less hours compared to February 2020, whereas men’s hours were back to pre-COVID levels.(25) More than twice as many women as men said their childcare responsibilities during the COVID-19 lockdown had prevented them from going to work, or had made work very difficult.(26)

South African women were “disproportionately affected by the ‘childcare shock’ in April”, taking on more additional childcare work, because 1) children were more likely to be living with their mothers, and 2) women living with children took on longer hours of childcare than men.(27) In addition, when surveyed about the impact of COVID-19 on their schooling, girls reported being overburdened by chores and having to care for younger siblings.(28) This shows how these gendered patterns of childcare are being reinforced for the next generation.

When schools re-opened, both men and women reported less hours spent on childcare, but women’s hours reduced by more than men’s, highlighting how they had borne the brunt of school closures. Many ECD centres were still closed by October, and women continue to be negatively affected by this. Only 17% of men, compared to 63% of women, said they were looking after their young children by themselves.(29)

COVID-19 has highlighted two things: first, that transforming household and family gendered norms of care and domestic labour is vital for ensuring women’s full and equal participation in the economy. Second, it has highlighted the opportunity for workplaces to provide supportive environments for mothers through a range of interventions, such as on-site childcare, flexible working hours, and increased parental leave.
How do we support a more gender-equitable future?

Work on addressing the childcare shock is taking place around the world, and there are many opportunities that South Africa could learn from, both in the immediate wake of the hard lockdown and for the future.

Provide immediate financial support to mothers

In the short term, more is needed to ensure that women do not lose their jobs in the face of childcare shocks, or are remunerated for unpaid childcare. For instance, some countries (like Italy, Romania, and Algeria) have introduced special/exceptional childcare leave for working parents, providing them with job security whilst schools are closed.(30) In addition, cash transfers may ease the burden of unpaid care work on women, but should be accompanied by accessible childcare facilities,(31) so that women are not required to continue with care work at the expense of paid employment once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Changing gendered household norms through paternity leave

For the long term, COVID-19 has highlighted women’s childcare burden and the need to amend gender norms in the household. One way to encourage male involvement in childcare from birth is to implement equal paid parental leave for all parents. Research shows that women’s employment in the private sector is higher in countries that mandate paternity leave.(32) South Africa offers fathers just ten days parental leave, sending a clear message that ‘childcare is women’s work’. Many countries have more generous parental leave than South Africa, and it is frequently paid by employers.(33) In South Africa, companies such as Vodacom Group, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Volvo, and Unilever all offer fathers more than the minimum leave.

Unfortunately, offering the leave does not seem to be enough for men to take it. Gender norms and workplace culture can discourage men from using this leave. Fathers tend to make up only around 20% of those who take parental leave as of 2016.(34) However, ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ leave, sometimes known as ‘daddy quotas’, has been shown to increase men’s uptake of parental leave and improve their participation in care work.(35)(36)(37) In Quebec, Canada, these quotas also substantially increased mothers’ ability to participate in paid work.(38)

Parental leave has been shown to have benefits for workplaces too, improving staff retention, morale, and productivity, and reducing absenteeism and turnover.(39)

Expanding the scope and beneficiaries of the UIF

Of course, employer-sponsored leave benefits are only available to mothers and fathers in formal employment. In South Africa, several categories of workers,(40) including informal workers and the self-employed, cannot contribute to or draw from the UIF, meaning that some of the most vulnerable workers cannot access the financial support that would tide them over or help them afford childcare. Yet, each year, the UIF records a significant surplus of funds — an expected R3.6 billion over the next three years(41) — that could be used to support these working mothers, and could be extended to improving parental leave for fathers. There is a need for law reform to ensure that all workers can contribute to and draw from the UIF should they become unemployed or need to take extended leave as a result of their childcare responsibilities.

Increasing access to affordable and quality ECD and childcare services

Another challenge for working mothers, especially single mothers, is the availability of high-quality, affordable ECD and childcare in their workplaces and communities. Research from around the world, including developing countries, shows that there is a positive relation between childcare and maternal employment. This includes direct outcomes of reduced time spent caring for children during the work week and increased time for wage- or self-employment. In the medium term, the availability of childcare is linked to increased employment, increased entrepreneurship, and reduced stress. In the long term, this results in an increase in employment rates, income, and the wellbeing of working mothers.(42)

At present, ECD services are largely offered by private individuals, small companies, and non-governmental organisations. The South African ECD workforce is 95% female.(43) The sector receives limited state sponsorship, and is not evenly rolled out across the country. This is already on the government’s agenda, with the 2019–2024 Medium Term Strategic Framework noting that “access to quality ECD is needed for all children, especially those in vulnerable groups”.(44) Government plans to introduce legislation to regulate the ECD landscape and develop new funding models for ECD delivery. The target — an ambitious one — is that 90% of all four-year-olds will have access to ECD by 2024.(45)

Childcare services have been effective around the world, and can take many forms. Laura Alfers (2015) provides a set of examples of best practices from the Global South for the reader interested in more detail.

Employer-supported childcare and family-friendly workplace policies

Research has shown that there are many business benefits for employers who offer their employees childcare. “They can tap into a larger skilled talent pool, reduce absenteeism and turnover, boost employee productivity and satisfaction, attract investors and buyers, and attain ‘employer of choice’ status — all of which can contribute to profits for companies and jobs for women — benefiting economies and societies.”(46) Where workplaces do opt to provide childcare, it is vital that it is quality childcare that is safe, contributes to learning and parental engagement, and is staffed by a qualified workforce.(47) Such initiatives could take many forms, including:(48)

  • on-site childcare centres run by the employer or a third party;
  • off- or near-site childcare centres sponsored by one or more companies (including community-based childcare centres);
  • childcare vouchers, subsidies, etc. to enable workers to use other childcare services; and
  • back-up, after-hours, and sick child services.
When supported by family-friendly policies such as gender-neutral parental leave, flexibility in working hours, and flexible work arrangements, safe transport, and additional care services, workplace childcare policies have the potential to increase both mothers’ and fathers’ employment opportunities.(49)

Of course, any solution must be context-specific and relevant to parents’ needs, otherwise it could have unintended consequences. Research conducted in Chile, for instance, suggests that mandating private-sector employers to pay for childcare may have negative effects on women, with employers passing on the childcare costs to these female employees.(50) State subsidisation might alleviate this practice, but more research is needed on the South African context.

Extending the school day to support working mothers

A final alternative is for the state to subsidise childcare by, for instance, extending the school day. This has shown the potential to draw women into the labour force,(51) increase the labour force participation and employment rates of single mothers with eligible children,(52) increase women’s earnings and number of hours worked per week,(53) and increase mothers’ employment in areas where childcare availability is limited.(54)

We already have a local example of this idea in practice. Molo Mhlaba, a low-fee independent school in Khayelitsha, offers an extended school day, from 7:30 to 16:00, so that working parents can have more time for work. In addition, it creates additional employment opportunities for women in the community.(55)

Practical considerations
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution to supporting women workers. For workplaces, assessing parents’ needs is a first step to developing family-friendly environments that support women’s entry and success.(56)
  • Supporting informal, part-time, and self-employed working mothers will require innovation and likely legislative reform of the Unemployment Insurance Act.
  • Expanding parental leave could help transform the norms of care in the home.
Supporting more women to work has innumerable benefits for the economy, their children and families, and for achieving South Africa’s commitment to a more equal society. As it stands now, women shoulder the burden of childcare at the expense of their work. We should not forget that it is men who benefit most from this imbalance.

If South Africa does not transform the gendered norms of care and the structural barriers in the way of women’s labour force participation and employment, the feminisation of poverty will persist. Addressing this challenge is an opportunity waiting to be seized by both the state and the private sector. There are many options, among them immediate financial support, family-friendly workplace policies, and expanding state-subsidized childcare. The question of what form this should take is important, but perhaps more important is the question of ‘when’. The answer is clearly: as soon as possible.


Jennifer Smout

Jen Smout is a feminist writer and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has spent a decade working in the field of gender equality and women’s rights for civil society, the South African parliament, international development organisations, and the donor community. Jen has a Master’s in politics with distinction from Rhodes University and in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. When she is not working on gender assessments and research, she writes fiction and edits essay collections under the name Jen Thorpe. Her first novel, The Peculiars (2016), was long-listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature (2016) and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize (2017). Her second novel, The Fall, was published in July 2020. She has edited three collections of feminist essays — My First Time: Stories of Sex and Sexuality from Women Like You (Modjaji, 2012); Feminism is: South Africans Speak their Truth (Kwela, 2018), and Living while Feminist (Kwela, 2020). To view all the 2021 Contributors CLICK HERE