MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Pandemic offers a reality check on ‘work-life balance’ for working mothers

By Sibusiso Mkwananzi, Yaliwe Clarke and Tendai Matika 25 February 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has reignited work-life balance issues. (Photo: constructionexec.com / Wikipedia)

Working mothers have grappled with the question of work-life balance for years, particularly as more and more women take up employment outside the home.

In 2019, female labour force participation rates stood at 63.5% for women in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, the figure stood at 48.9% of women.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reignited these work-life balance issues. Working mothers had to reassume childcare and domestic responsibilities, while also doing their paid jobs from home. Figures bear out the fact that, prepandemic, women were already performing the lion’s share of domestic work. They were also – and remain – hamstrung by corporate policies that are often gender-biased, with discriminatory regulations that adversely affect women such as poor working conditions, limited maternity leave, lack of child-care assistance as well as inadequate opportunities for training and promotion.

We also know that the proportion of female-headed households and absent fathers has increased over time in numerous sub-Saharan African countries. South Africa is experiencing the fourth generation of children raised by single mothers; between 43% and 55% of children younger than 15 had absent fathers in 2010. This adds to women’s disproportionately high childcare burden. The NIDS-CRAM Wave 1 survey from 2020 showed that 80% of mothers were spending more than four additional hours daily on unpaid childcare during the national lockdown. 

The negative effects of this situation on women and children have been well documented by researchers. For instance, women taking up such multiple roles could experience higher stress levels, burnout and even mental breakdown. Career-related implications of the “double-double” shift include lower ability and time for work, which has adverse effects on promotion as well as job stability for working mothers. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a good opportunity to examine whether women are being adequately accommodated in the workplace. This means exploring whether we’re merely advocating for gender equity (only ensuring that the same opportunities available to men are made available to women) or if we want to ensure that the work environment is as conducive for women to thrive in as it is for men. Surely the latter desire encapsulates the essence of gender equality, as Kabeer (2003) argues?

So, what can be done to resolve the pressures working mothers face? Numerous solutions have been mooted. Firstly, Bosch (2020) proposed a childcare subsidy for women. This would be an extra income to pay to hire a home-based caregiver or to enroll the child in an early childhood development centre during office hours. Based on the average cost of such centres nationally (about R2,000 a month), as well as the national minimum wage for domestic workers (including home-based caregivers) that came into effect on 1 January 2019, a subsidy of R1,500 per month for each dependant needing care would assist working people with care-giving responsibilities. Such a care subsidy should be made available to any individual, regardless of sex, who can prove that they are the caregiver to a dependant (not a child specifically). 

Another solution lies with companies introducing onsite or nearby crèches. This approach has been taken by some industries before, such as tertiary institutions. To save money, companies could partner with suitable service providers to set up nearby or onsite to shift the running costs. This places the responsibility to change the physical working space on companies and employers. 

Also, it could encourage workplaces to make offices more parent- and child-friendly, especially if the changes to the physical space entailed more than building a crèche that is out of sight for employees. There could also be the possibility of offices allowing staff to interact with children at certain times in office spaces. This could open up the possibility of seeing other parents taking care of children while at work thereby assisting in the normalisation of caregiving and parenting. Associated office schedules and work styles would be coerced to eventually accommodate childcare responsibilities during work hours. 

To alleviate the domestic responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, washing of clothes, and so on, companies could facilitate the outsourcing of such duties through a domestic work subsidy. This extra money would specifically be to hire a domestic worker and could follow the national minimum wage guidelines mentioned earlier for this sector and set at R1,500 per home as well. Such a subsidy could be offered to all people who are primarily responsible for domestic work in their homes regardless of gender, marital status and dependency. Of course, nothing excludes men from the role of care work. They are equally as capable to participate in this labour as women are. In fact, this conundrum has been solved in some European countries by men becoming more involved in domestic and care work. 

Nevertheless, all the above suggested solutions require the elimination of patriarchal ideology that domestic and care work are duties for women alone. These views are reproduced through socialisation and culture. Dismantling these stances is urgently required and will need the concerted efforts of women and more especially men with different levels of influence and power. It is only when our mindset as society becomes reformed to fully embrace gender equality in all spheres of our lives that things will begin to change. DM/MC

Dr Sibusiso Mkwananzi is a Demographer and Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg with research interests in gender, SRHR and the quantitative analysis of contextual phenomena. Yaliwe Clarke is the Interim Director of the African Gender institute and a Lecturer in Gender Studies at the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town. Tendai Matika is a senior development professional and continuous learner, currently registered for an MPhil in Social Policy and Development with the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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