The silent discrimination faced by women in lockdown

A school's choice of who to count as a key worker revealed a 'subtle chauvinism'

March 10, 2021 09:22

Never had I been happier to sit in traffic. Between three separate London fringe diversions, we bellowed along to an instrumental Let it Go that Classic FM decided was an appropriate re-launch to their School Run programme.  

We are blessed to send our daughter to a good Jewish school. As I dropped her off on the first day back, a paper bag was passed through the car window. “Mum’s kit’” read the label on the front. Inside, biscuits, granola bar and coffee sachet winked tantalisingly at me, alongside mini Kleenex. A gift from the incredible PTA, who have been so active and innovative throughout lockdown.  

They also included a poem: “We’ve got you covered for that first wave of tears [ah, that explains the Kleenex], as you finally get some quiet for what seems like years. We imagined that you might want nothing less, than a chance to relax and relieve that stress.” Cue collective “Aaaaw”. It’s these small but impactful gestures that make me grateful to be part of a wonderful school community. 

Idling at yet more temporary lights, I scoffed biscoffs and granola bar and considered tipping the contents of the coffee sachet directly into my mouth. I held off on this last one (strictly from a road safety standpoint – I dropped my dignity at the school gates), and after a two-hour round trip, returned home to my psychologist husband running an online DBT group for the NHS from our front room.  

I tried not to make noise as I prepared an actual coffee, while he provided those who have successfully navigated NHS wait-times with much-needed therapy. I cringed as I remembered last week’s interruption of tantrumming child refusing to log into lessons. My husband was forced to mute mid-meditation while I dragged said child into the garden.  

I returned to the present - a backlog of emails, two dozen calls that couldn’t wait another day, and meetings that should have taken place last week, including some that had already been rescheduled. But I followed PTA advice and took a moment to breathe. I love what I do – community work – and as a rabbinical employee my role as “religious staff’ technically makes me an “essential worker”.  

At least, that’s what government guidelines say. So why do I add “technically”? It’s a strange phenomenon. My husband works in the NHS five mornings a week. He also works as a rabbi seven days a week. Between the two of us, we perform 75 hours of contracted “essential work”, split between NHS, religious and pastoral roles. Despite this, our child’s school was unwilling to offer keyworker provision. When pushed, they allowed our child to come in two days per week - cancelled or shortened on occasion.  

Sadly, I do not think that her school stands out on this front. 

A friend of mine is a registered childminder looking after toddlers. She also has a seven-year-old daughter and a husband working in finance. Although she is a keyworker, her school decided that, since she works from home looking after others’ children, she might as well keep her own child home as well. How she was expected to supervise her seven-year-old’s schooling while simultaneously entertaining and caring for a group of toddlers really stretches women’s multitasking to the nth. 

Tragically, there are many examples of this silent discrimination. The logic seems clear – where there is a mother figure who can be in the home, even an essential worker with contracted hours, the assumption is that she can and should juggle home-schooling alongside her paid occupation. We witnessed this clearly in my child’s school - the same or more childcare provision was offered to families where a mother qualified as an essential worker than families where a father did. 

The thoughtful and well-intentioned package sent home addressed to “mums” makes the toxic assumption that in all households it’s been mothers who have dropped everything to pick up childcare. There’s truth to this - a worrying trend across the country throughout lockdowns. A teacher acquaintance admitted frustration at having to go into school to look after a part-time nurse’s children, while said nurse’s furloughed husband sat at home. Had the parents’ roles been reversed, she doubted the school would have offered keyworker provision to the family. 

We witnessed this subtle chauvinism in our child’s school, where they admitted that priority was given to families with a teacher in the home, regardless of the occupation of the other parent. In a country where more than 80 per cent of primary-school teachers are female, and at a school where that percentage is higher still, this translates either to an assumed incompetence of men to pick up home roles, or – equally disturbing – a greater value on men who perform “non-essential” work. 

When I challenged the triage logic and requested increased in-school hours, the response was “We have families where the mother is a doctor or teacher”, as if that explained the system. My child’s father is a doctor in a hospital – frequently on Covid wards dealing with the psychological fallout of physical health conditions - but what the school really meant was that they consider a mother’s inflexible schedule more trying for a family than a father’s inflexible schedule, and a father less capable of parenting or multi-tasking than a mother. 

Shamed for requesting equal treatment, I considered requesting furlough just so I could be a present parent and teacher, and my husband took some annual leave in order for me to do my job. Other times he cut his hospital hours short in order to pick up our toddler (while I supervised Zoom lessons), then raced off to perform a burial. I haven’t had it any more difficult than other women by any stretch. Many have longer, less flexible hours than I do, and still juggled their occupation alongside home-school.  

I admire, support and applaud all women, whether their choice of occupation is home-based, office-based, or family-based (yes, being a parent is a valuable and respectable full-time occupation choice). Yet I’m reminded of the backslide feminism took after the war; women made up the workforce during the years when it was “necessary” for them to perform traditionally male work, but once men returned to fill those roles, it was back home you go! Thanks for plugging the hole, but dinner won’t cook itself. 

Why is it that, for women, professional employment is treated as a luxury? When pushed, it seems that we remain the ones who must drop out-of-house commitments in order to pick up the threads that threaten to unravel within the home. Why are schools reluctant to recognise the equal value of women in the workforce?  

We chose our school community for various reasons, not least (I openly admit our snobbery) because the parent body is a healthy mix of professionals – both mums and dads – and its ethos seemed to comfortably align with our own. But now I am forced to question it, and a seemingly innocuous label has become the springboard for this discontent. 

I’ve had comments about those “essential worker” provision days that my child received, and experienced misplaced guilt in admitting to them. “Enjoy your freedom today!” I was instructed more times than I can recount. What freedom? Oh, you mean make that pastoral visit without leaving my kid in the car logged into Zoom lessons on my smartphone with the window cranked open in minus degrees? Or do you mean, spend five hours on back-to-back phone calls that I’ve been unable to make while she scribbles on her teacher’s zoom presentation and is told to “get your mother [my emphasis] to find today’s worksheets”? I wonder whether the same comments were made to working men on the days their children went to school: “Enjoy your freedom today!”.  

I joked with a friend that I’d flag his family to social services if he’d reciprocate, and have our children chivvied back into school as “vulnerable”. That’s not a funny joke. It’s not a joke at all and I am ashamed to admit to it. But irresponsible and desperate behaviours that I adopted to score precious minutes to perform tasks that my job requires included sending my daughter cycling solo around the block, holding my breath if she took longer than two and a half minutes. She is still shy of seven. 

“We did it!” “We survived!” Social media resounds with these false cheers. But we didn’t all “do it all”. Cracks have appeared. And women have been left to plaster over and repaint them in bright and cheery floral designs, then boast of the filtered results. I’m sure there are those who would suggest making the repairs to our homes and relationships into an activity involving the kids. Because us mums, we can make anything into an activity, or so they would have us believe. 

So, thanks for my “Mum’s kit”. You meant well, and I appreciate the care behind it. But did you address any to “Dad”? Perhaps next time include some plaster and paint. If that’s hard to come by, perhaps a course of sertraline and a voucher to a nannying agency. Thank you for assuming it’s “mum” who sacrificed her work life while cash-cow super-dad continued as normal.  

Please, dear school to whom I have entrusted my daughter’s education, and from whom she will learn her values - please, teach her to value women in the workforce as much as men. What have the boys in her school been taught, taking home a pamper package for mum and not for dad? I’ll tell you: it’s reinforced the expectation that mum will do it all, and that a gift will make it ok.  “We know it’s been hard – here’s a token of our appreciation”.  

This is how they will view and treat the women in their lives when they grow up. We need to teach them now, we need to model now more than ever that women’s roles outside of the home are also important. What could have been a valuable teaching opportunity has been wasted, and that saddens me. 

As I typed out my frustrations on Monday - coincidentally International Women’s Day – I also reflected on my privileged position. The cleaner arrived to reinstate order in my post-weekend home. I am grateful that I could have conceivably requested furlough, or even unpaid leave, and still have made ends meet.  

A tad ashamed of the bitterness I was feeling, I fought to drive it out of my system. Her two little boys must have been back at school as well. She never did tell me who was watching them while she continued to work during lockdown. I shared a drink with her before cracking on with my work. Somehow, I didn’t think wishing her Happy International Women’s Day would have been appropriate. 

Ma'ayan Landau is rebbetzin of Barnet United Synagogue



March 10, 2021 09:22

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive