Working Women: The Positive Effects of COVID-19 on Working Mothers
- By Ms Nomfundo Khwela-Mdluli and Dr Andrisha Beharry-Ramraj
There are a significant number of women participating in all spheres of economic activity, while also caring for their families and elderly parents, furthering their own academic studies and maintaining social and spiritual balance. Mothers are spending more time in the labour force than in the past but also more time dealing with childcare. There is a constant shift of wearing one hat to another to fulfil commitments and responsibilities, both personal and professional. It seems for most women in the world, maintaining a work-life balance is a consistent struggle and many will attest to often feeling “mom guilt” while doing what they can to achieve in their lives.
COVID-19 caused a state of panic in South Africa in mid-March as the country went into lockdown, something not many had ever experienced before. Despite the scare and the increasing infections and death rate locally and internationally, many people in the country seemed to embrace the situation. One cannot ignore the fast adaption to the current level of normality and the benefits it has had for the working woman with a growing family. While many studies have shown that stay-at-home moms facilitate learning capabilities for their children and create a safe environment for youngsters, physically and psychologically, many other studies have demonstrated that children with working mothers also have the benefits of obtaining realist preparation for adult life, where mothers are teaching children independence and balance through children observing them managing tasks successfully.
The first leg of lockdown had families cooking all meals, and eating at one dinner table more often than ever before. Family members were in each other’s presence and this sparked conversations that could have been lacking, observing traits that may previously have been blind spots.
What it also did was introduce parents to their children’s schooling in greater detail. Concepts became harder to explain, and learning gaps became evident as more specific effort was invested as opposed to when there was just one hour of checking homework at the end of the day. Children and spouses got a glimpse into the day-to-day activities involved in a mom’s job. The benefit of this is the family started understanding each other’s pressures, strengths and limitations. Moral support and nurturing from all members improved.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed personal and work dynamics and we need to let go of the mental model of thinking of work-time and home-time being distinct and separate blocks. Perhaps the term “work-life balance” is wrong. In the time of COVID-19, the two have formed synergies; the physical travelling to a place of work created a mental integration amongst the two.
Many women are working optimally despite the trials and errors caused by bad ergonomics, shifting working stations, and the mistake of packing up the workplace every afternoon and unpacking in the morning. Once people found an ideal spot in their house, they became more productive at home and managed to have more meaningful and fruitful discussions with all stakeholders in the workplace. As the country entered lockdown Level 3, virtual meetings with various stakeholders in and outside of the organisation became the norm. Only critical physical interaction on demand is carried out, then it is back to the home office for the rest of the day.
While there is an absence of the physical work environment and not undermining the psychological impact of connecting with people, the workplace can be a flexible alternative of home or workplace, while still having engagement sessions on demand at the office. The objective is to improve individual productivity, and reduce costs for both the business and employees working from home. The synergy between work and personal life will result in improved work performance, self-development, family relations, and development of the physical, psychological, community (friends, neighbours, religious or social groups), and self (mind, body, and spirit).
Work cannot continue as usual as the technological ability to work virtually is empowering. In the typical office world, individuals - mainly women - unable to relocate for a promotion or travel out of the province weekly, are not considered for specific roles or issued specific functions, and as a result, their performance reviews suffer. Raising your hand for workplace flexibility provokes professional stigma. Attempting to be an ideal worker as expected is retaliatory for working mothers who also have full obligations as mothers and spouses.
Men, however, are more likely to pass as ideal workers as they have the flexibility for drinks after work to concrete a business deal at the pub from 6pm to 8pm without any interruptions to family life. At the same time, women may decline such an invitation. Many organisations have not been open to flexible working hours or working places and this has seen many women opting out of the workforce or taking a back seat and staying in specific roles even when ready to progress.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution - a world of laptops, smartphones, Skype, Microsoft Team and Zoom - the essence of any employee is their intellectual capacity, which is fully operational and engaged at home. A choice between the quality of work versus the quantity of work needs to surface. It is possible to produce value from home. Employees can concentrate on the quality of work and be more productive during workdays.
During this pandemic, employers are seeing that workers can’t function optimally if they run into their family time and responsibilities. Following this pandemic, we need to create a system that fits real workers’ needs; a system that considers that women are raising the next generation to enter the workplace, children who need their mothers present, and also mothers able to confidently entrench independence, self-awareness and resilience. Achieving this opens the opportunity to emerge from this crisis with mentally thriving employees resulting in prime performing organisations, families and societies.
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Dr Andrisha Beharry-Ramraj is a lecturer at UKZN’s School of Management, IT and Governance.
Ms Nomfundo Khwela-Mdluli is a High Street Distributor Key Account Manager at Engen and she is pursuing a master’s in the School of Management, IT and Governance.