The division of work between women and men is, and has long been, profoundly gendered. Women’s access to paid work, leisure time and power remains heavily constrained by traditional social roles as carers and mothers even as they have increasingly entered and remained in the labour market.

The response to Covid-19 has seen a significant displacement of care and childcare from services to households throughout lockdown. Despite descriptions of crashing productivity in the ‘real economy,’ women are busier than ever. Time-use data, survey data, and women’s own accounts all chart an increase in home-schooling, childcare, care for disabled and older people, and other unpaid work predominantly done by women such as housework and household management.

The only policy response to this increase in unpaid work has been an ill-fitting ‘furlough’ scheme, which initially did not include any provision for employers to secure wage replacement for those doing caring roles. Although the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme has now been expanded to include furlough for those providing childcare or care full-time, this is not available on a part-time basis. Women who are in paid work are consequently juggling their employment and these larger care roles, with significant consequences for their wellbeing and mental health.

The extent and pattern of women’s unpaid work is a key driver of their capacity to work in the formal labour market, participate in public and community life, and be well and healthy. It has implications for how women use public transport and other public services. It affects the ways in which both finances and wellbeing are managed within the household. Despite its centrality to discussions about women’s equality and rights, unpaid care and reproductive labour is often marginal within policymaking processes.

To avoid a rollback of women’s equality and rights as Scotland emerges from lockdown, Scottish Government and other public bodies must consider the role of unpaid care as they plan the ways in which economic recovery and the safe delivery of transport, education, childcare, and other public services will be achieved.

Read Engender's paper about unpaid work and Covid-19 here.