Working women and the pandemic: Full interview with Dina Abdelfattah

Photo courtesy: Kamaji Ogino via Pexels

The past year has shown us that all around the world, it is female working professionals with children- more than their male peers- who have carried the extra heavy load of their children’s home-learning due to the shutdown of schools and other care facilities for some time. As for the rest of the year, many schools followed a hybrid model.

The situation exacerbated the career versus care responsibilities dilemma and posed new gender role questions. In an earlier article Ghada Nadi, managing editor at Business Forward, explored the daily struggles of working mothers during these challenging times, interviewing several female professionals including Dina Abdelfattah, assistant professor of economics at the AUC School of Business. Business Forward now brings you our full interview with Abdelfattah who shares her perspective on this new dimension of gender bias as both a labor economist and a working mother.

As a working professional, do you agree with that? How do you see this situation impacting working mothers?

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 her back from pursuing their career. This reminds me of a webinar that I attended along with other females in leadership positions in academic institutions. We were all asked to draw a pie chart showing the different responsibilities we have. Given the nature of the training, we categorized the responsibilities into personal, department and system/institution. We were also asked to draw a timeline with the main upcoming important dates with main events happening.

During the exercise, almost all of us saw that on this timeline, rarely did we write an important date or event that is personal related. I do believe that this is normal and when women joined the labor market they knew this means that their time-use will necessarily have to shift. It is no longer leisure vs household, it is now work time, leisure and household. The shift in time allocation will always have to happen and this is necessary to ensure women are active in the labor force.

The problem is not there. The problem is that the personal side is [now] imposing itself on your daily calendar for reasons completely out of everyone’s hands. Suddenly the geographic boundaries of house, work and school has disappeared, and they all now fall under the same roof. Schools have been suspended and kids are forced to stay and learn from home. Nurseries and day cares are working on a capacity of 50 percent. This means that for some women, they found themselves committed within the eight hours of the working day to become an employee, a mother, a teacher and a cook. If multitasking is not within her powers, then mental stress and anxiety will be her friend for quite some time. For others, they still have to go to the office, leaving their kids home, worried about their educational progress, and so they start thinking of sacrifices. Should she sacrifice her children’s education and think it is affected anyway [because of the pandemic situation] and it’s hopefully short term? Or sacrifice her job which would be a rather medium-long term sacrifice?

The problem becomes worse if help does not exist, at least within those eight hours of the day when everything is happening at the same time. 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. Reservation wages for women are generally higher, but actual wages are lower. Can women afford this help which comes at a high cost? Moreover, if this becomes the go-to option for working mothers, then we still end up with exposing children and putting them at the risk of catching or spreading the disease.

The dilemma is real, the mothers have been carrying this heavy load of the pandemic since March 2020. 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.

Dina Abdelfattah is assistant professor of economics at the AUC School of Business

How do you see the response of the government, schools and corporates regarding shut-down of schools?

I believe that what makes the problem worse is that the entire country is not following the same pattern. In many workplaces, all employees, males and females, have to be physically present. In others, you will find partial presence. So, you will end up with families with either parent working from home and the other working as per the old normal.

“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 partial lockdown on educational institutions while the corporate life is operating business as usual. Even the regulation saying mothers with kids under the age of 12 can work from home, is not an appreciated option by employers and this adds to the costs of having women in the workforce. So, what we might think of as a regulation that is helping mothers with huge care responsibilities now may end up as a way for the private sector to discriminate against women and force them to choose one of their roles- in the house or out of the house.

Is there any emerging evidence regarding the impact of the crisis on the female working population?

Time has not allowed yet for clear evidence to support this. Focus group discussions and interviews are taking place here and there to try to come up with a general understanding of the situation. Baseera have started providing some preliminary evidence as well as CAPMAS, but not from a women specific perspective but rather from an economic perspective. The Economic Research Forum (ERF) is currently working on finalizing and hopefully disseminating data on an economic survey that accounts for the role of women and the impact of the pandemic on women, accounting for mental wellbeing variables as well. This data set is hopefully going to provide some insights on the impact of the pandemic on women and the role of the care economy.

How does the working conditions of women affect the level of impact? (formal versus informal, labor law rights, etc.)

Women in Egypt are represented in particular sectors mostly in health and education. These are now the two sectors that are mostly hit by the pandemic. The health sector is working around the clock in most of its specializations to cater for the chaotic state of confusion for people and to cater to the increasing need for doctors addressing the increasing number of cases in hospitals or even in-home care. In the education sector, women found themselves shifting from working in a sector that is more flexible and caters to the role of women and mothers to a sector that is highly demanding. Teachers suddenly found themselves having to go to schools to run their “live sessions” with students and again not knowing where to leave their kids or how to follow up with their kids’ school attendance and participation and home-tasks. Suddenly a sector that was a very stable sector for women became a highly demanding one with a great deal of restrictions and responsibilities.

Even women who previously used to work from home informally, are suddenly finding themselves working in the presence of their school children with all the responsibilities that come along with that.

What coping mechanisms have you witnessed women (and their families if applicable) adopting to navigate this situation? What would you advise as a working professional yourself?

The coping mechanism I have so far been witnessing on a personal level and from what I see in my surrounding network is only self-sacrifice. The more professional term for it would be “time management” but now the term time has extended to include the whole 24 hours. Collegiality is a necessary condition for the success of any woman in this time. Working as a team and dividing tasks and workload to fit each and every team-member’s schedule is a key. In the absence of this very utopic environment then self-sacrifice starts to appear.

Another mechanism that I started following myself is to treat my 7-year-old as if she is a 17-year-old, delegating most of the e-learning responsibilities to her and trusting she would fulfil. These kids have been presented with a golden opportunity to grow and mature and share in responsibilities. This is not the easy method to get the responsibility off the shoulders of the mothers. On the contrary, this is the more demanding way of sharing the responsibility. Mothers are not supposed to become the teachers, they are supposed to provide the guidance and draw the path for their kids to follow.

Other coping mechanism includes hiring home help, having to rely more on grandparents or make use of the paid services of home tutors or the day-cares that have been transformed into home-learning hubs.

What regulatory changes are needed to address this prolonged situation of women carrying additional loads of supporting the education of their young children? (laws, national policies, employer policies and school policies).

Policies exist in separation from one another. It is the coordination that is very much needed at this point. These separate rules/policies existing in separation 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.

What about behavioral and cultural changes that institutions could help address?

When it comes to the role of women, behavioral and cultural rigidities will always exist. Women are still in the same old fight of wanting to belong to the labor force and proving to the entire society that being an active member in the labor force does not automatically mean that she is inactive in the house and with the children. The pandemic came adding to the challenges. Institutions could help by stopping the labelling that is always associated with women. Responsibility sharing should be emphasized. The attention needs to shift to highlight the role of men, as their role in this challenging time for many households cannot be overlooked. Policies addressing women have to address men as well. They cannot work in separate independent circles.

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