A lack of information is also a problem for social scientists and policy makers. “On my more cynical days, I think the government doesn’t want the data,” Wenham said, because hard figures would show women just how screwed they have been. By law, British companies are obliged to report their gender pay gap—but they were given a year off in 2020, and this year the figures do not have to be submitted until October.
In the meantime, the data gap has been filled by academic researchers and international organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In Britain, the Women’s Budget Group, a collective of independent researchers, has chronicled the pandemic’s unequal impact. A survey of 1,003 people found that parents with low incomes were nine times more likely to report a risk of losing their jobs if schools and nurseries were closed, while one in five mothers was made redundant or lost hours because of caring responsibilities, compared with 13 percent of fathers. Alongside investment in child care and the inclusion of more women in political decision making, the Women’s Budget Group has called for targeted support of female-dominated sectors, such as hospitality and retail.
The raw statistics are one thing, but what strikes you when talking with parents is their sheer exhaustion, often laced with a sense of injustice. Susannah Hares, a senior policy fellow for the Centre for Global Development, is a single mother of a 2-year-old. Her day job involves studying the gendered effects of COVID-19, so it feels strangely fitting that her son’s nursery class has been sent home to self-isolate three times in the past year, for more than a week each time, with no notice. “I’ve had to pull out of panels,” she told me. “I’ve felt it has impacted my career.”
Last March, I also quoted the Emory University epidemiologist Rachel Patzer, who had to care for a three-week-old baby and two young children while her husband—who works in the emergency department of a local hospital—lived above their garage to reduce his chance of infecting the family. Like Hares, and many other women I have spoken with over the past year, when we caught up recently, Patzer stressed her privilege—she has kept her job. Nonetheless, repeated quarantines, a lack of child care, and the toll of virtual schooling have made her life difficult. Worse, others around her have struggled to comprehend the challenges she faces, or preferred not to acknowledge them. “Many of my colleagues who were male, childless, or who even had older children could not understand,” she told me. “I have voiced these concerns to colleagues and have been advised to stop mentioning my children as an excuse impacting my work.”
Realizing that school reopenings have been such a low political priority has felt like a particular insult for many American parents. “I’m still incredibly disappointed with our culture and our leadership in allowing for the opening of bars, restaurants, and other nonessential businesses when there are still schools that are not open,” Patzer said. “I have seen so many of our friends suffer this past year.”