Online education: a new dilemma for working mothers

Photo: Pexels/Energepic

It was approaching 11 am as I resisted a growing feeling of frustration. It must have been the tenth interruption of the day, my mind shifting again from the budget breakdown on my screen to my seven year old son asking how to spell ‘also’. For a few weeks now since the announcement of the return to complete school shutdown last December, the sofa has become my new work station, after the two desks in the house have become e-learning work stations for my two children. How many desks could one possibly fit in one house after all?

I put on my headset again and tell myself “it’s okay, it’s just another day where I will have to work a bit later than I would like.” Time is taken from my working hours helping the children find the links to their lessons and live sessions, printing worksheets and uploading assignments, and troubleshooting sound and camera issues. I had less than an hour to focus on some writing before the next work meeting on Zoom. Less than 15 minutes later, my other son’s voice came from right outside the room calling for help. “Mum, the internet is not working again!” It was another one of those despairing moments, thinking to myself that this is not going to work.

This daily struggle is becoming a reality for millions of female professionals around the globe who also happen to be mothers suddenly finding themselves obliged to step in to support critical educational stages of their young children.

It is no surprise that unpaid care responsibilities fall on the shoulders of women more than men, regardless of whether the women work and contribute to the family income or not. This is particularly relevant in this part of the world with the ratio of time spent on unpaid work by women compared to men reached 19:1 in some countries, according to the 2020 “The Role of the Care Economy in Promoting Gender Equality” report by UN Women and the Economic Research Reform (ERF).

In Egypt, “married women spend seven times as much time on unpaid care work as married men; while unmarried women spend 6.5 times as much as unmarried men.” The report states that time spent on unpaid care work does not differ whether or not women are employed.

In the discourse about female labor market participation, the availability of adequate and affordable childcare facilities and elderly care services has been established as an enabler for women’s participation in the labor force. With the shutdown of schools and other care facilities, gender inequality has been emphasized by the COVID-19 crisis, as it is the female professionals with children- more than their males peers- who are expectedly carrying the additional burden of helping young children staying at home with online education.

The dilemma is real

Mai Azzam, a lecturer of pharmacy and chief executive officer (CEO) of an aesthetic center tells Business Forward that the experience has been stressful for her, compressing her usual eight-hour work day that used to start in the morning while her children were at school, to between 1 and 5 pm. Before that, she has to be present during online learning hours, and afterwards she has to rush back home to accompany her children to trainings and attend to other obligations.

One mother of two children aged 10 and 13 who works in the telecom sector, anonymously tells Business Forward about how her lack of ability to focus is affecting her work deliverables because of constant requests from her children, even while following a hybrid system of working between home and the office. She had to hire fulltime help and stays up late preparing meals and material for the next day’s online learning schedule.

Another anonymous professional who works in real estate recounted that she has to push her working day later than usual and sometimes has to cancel meetings. The three mothers reported that taking unpaid time off to fulfil childcare needs is something they would likely consider.

The UN Women report mentions that “the consequences of increased time spent on unpaid care during the pandemic are likely to include greater time poverty and lower well–being among women. They may also include job losses or reduced paid work hours for employed women who do not benefit from care leaves and/or cannot maintain their normal work schedules due to their increased care responsibilities at home.”

Rana Nafei, vice president of a fintech company and mother of two, tells Business Forward that she has to finish a big chunk of her work during bank hours. When she has to postpone work processes because she cannot be timely due to her children’s learning needs, work gets delayed. Nafei shares that it is challenging to work from home effectively with so many distractions and lack of privacy. In addition, not being physically at the office puts her at a disadvantage when managing other people. “I have things on my to-do list since March,” she jokes.

“The dilemma is real; the mothers have been carrying this heavy load of the pandemic since March. Mental wellbeing of students is discussed enough, but we haven’t heard of proper outlets concerned with the mental wellbeing of mothers. The collapse of mothers means the collapse of an entire family and maybe as well an important employee at some public or private institution,” tells us Dina Abdelfattah, assistant professor of economics at the AUC School of Business.

‘Coordination failure’?

Things started to be especially problematic in the current academic year when a significant number of employees were expected to be in office more often while the children are back to full e-learning. The way the e-learning is set up in most schools to a large extent depends on a parent or caregiver being physically present around the child. “Those children in the early stages whose parents are having to physically be at work will be completely lost without support,” Nafei says.

“Women in our societies are always asked to go the extra mile especially if they are in leadership positions. They are always under the spotlight to prove that their motherly responsibilities will never hold them back from pursuing a career,” says Abdelfattah, making the point that the issue in the current situation is not that women have to make shifts in time-use as this is something that has and will always happen to ensure their active participation in the labor force.

“The problem is that the personal side is imposing itself on your daily calendar for reasons completely out of everyone’s hands. Suddenly the geographic boundaries of home, work and school has disappeared, and they now all fall under the same roof,” describes Abdelfattah, a mother of two young children herself.

While reservation wages for women are generally higher, actual wages might actually be lower, Abdelfattah points out. “A number of services started to appear as emergency start-ups run by other women who are able to provide paid mother-replacement services in taking care of children during work hours,” she continues. This puts working women who cannot afford these ‘solutions’ at a disadvantage. From another angle, “if this becomes the go-to option, then we still end up with exposing children and putting them at the risk of catching or spreading the disease.”

“Coordination failure as a main deterrent to development is reflected at its best in this lifestyle. Schools decided to keep kids home, the government decided to impose temporary lockdown on educational institutions while the corporate life is operating business as usual.” Abdelfattah also refers to how regulations that allow special working arrangements for women of children under 12 will not be an option appreciated by employers and could act as a deterrent to female participation in the labor force.

In fact, such temporary provisions that apply only to women actually “reinforce gendered norms around care roles”, according to the UN Women report referred to earlier.

“These separate rules/policies existing in separation from one another is exactly the source of burden for women. She is expected to take off one hat to put on the other, however now she has a multi-colored hat that whenever she wears in any platform she is told she does not belong. She does not belong in a work-meeting with a screaming hungry child next to her, she does not belong in being her kids’ teacher with a work phone call in her ears and she definitely does not belong on a family dinner table with a laptop finishing a late task. Coordination is the key here,” continues Abdelfattah.

Could employers be more flexible?

Nermine Fawzy, a human capital expert, sees that for women professionals with young children learning at home, it is like having two simultaneous full-time jobs with no breaks, which is what makes the situation intense. She explains that with the uncertainty in the job market, it becomes harder for females to consider taking unpaid time off or leaving their jobs, especially if the income stability of the household is at risk.

Fawzy sees that on the other hand, we are seeing companies and corporates being more understanding, driven by global dynamics that are impacting everybody at the same time. This reflects in allowing flexible working arrangements for employees on a larger scale than before. Also, scheduling meetings around the online ‘school day’ is becoming a common practice in some company cultures. The pandemic situation varies from week to week, believes Fawzy, and so organizations and corporates just have to play it by ear and be empathetic and responsive to changing needs rather than looking at rules and regulations.

However, Fawzy also sees that there is the drop in productivity aspect that employers might have to consider in some cases. Additionally, flexible working arrangements mainly work for knowledge workers, but not for frontline workers or those who are responsible for factory production lines or those in a sector like food and beverages, for example. “I would be more concerned about the children of those whose work nature does not allow for this flexibility,” she says.

Changing the cultural paradigm

Attitudes about gender roles that assume that childcare – and particularly in this novel and demanding situation of e-learning- is solely a mother’s concern, is not something that will change overnight. Changing the cultural paradigm is a long-term process that requires action at the household, community and national levels.

Christine Guirguis, a certified life coach and mother of three, believes that in addressing such a dense issue, it does not help much pointing fingers at men telling them what they should be doing. “It’s about what can we do as women for ourselves,” she says.

For her side, Abdelfattah highlights the role of institutions in emphasizing responsibility sharing between men and women. “Institutions could help by stopping the labelling that is always associated with women. The role of men in this challenging time cannot be overlooked. Policies addressing women have to address men as well. They cannot work in separate independent circles,” she advises.

From another point of view, Fawzy sees that the developments of the past year despite causing general stress, could be on some level be narrowing the gender gap. “With the economic situation, some two-income households have become one-income households, and in some cases the female becomes the sole income provider. So that helps with shifting away from the mindset that the mother needs to deal with it all alone, and the father becomes more supportive whether by choice or not.”

Finding coping mechanisms

Nafei shares that having some control over her working hours, she makes sure to be in the office for three to four hours a day for meetings and signing papers during core working hours. She also allocates some time at home later on in the day for tasks that do not need interventions from other people. Other mothers Business Forward spoke to also referred to rearranging the hours of the day to fit new commitments and finding quieter hours in the day for tasks that require some focus.

As both a mother of three children at primary school age and a life coach who is passionate about helping people find their purpose and self-develop, Guirguis commends starting off the day with morning rituals- preferably earlier than when the children start their day. “These morning rituals can include a few minutes of something you would look forward to, followed by writing what is the focus of your day, what you are committed to. Adding structure helps a lot.”

She adds that being mindful of their different roles and clear on how important they are helps people manage their energy by deciding which role takes priority on that particular day or moment, which also makes the roles feel less of a burden. For example, Guirguis explains that being aware of the parental role as helping to lay the foundations for children to learn independently puts things into perspective, as opposed to frustrating over wanting them to finish their tasks so that we can get to our stuff.

From her experience, Abdelfattah also advises that time management, delegation and division of work tasks where possible, as well as using the opportunity to teach children more self-reliance are key coping mechanisms.

“The key here is creativity on how to get things done and flexibility on when to get them done,” Guirguis reflects. She also advises working mothers on accepting help, focusing on what they are getting done rather than letting themselves be dragged into feelings of guilt over what is not done. “You can’t be everywhere and you can’t do everything, and that is okay,” she says.

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