Alleviating the burdens of working mothers in COVID-19 and beyond

The pressures faced by working mothers can cause many to leave the workforce for good, this female founder believes that employers need to learn the lesson of flexibility if they want to retain them

Women and work have a complicated relationship; taking time out to start a family has widened the gender pay gap. Others, overwhelmed by remote working and homeschooling during COVID-19, have quit work for good. Combine this with the large female representation in some of the worst-hit sectors like hospitality and retail, and women, especially those with a family to support, have suffered.

Wendy Powell is the Founder and CEO of Mutu System, a digital fitness programme for pregnant women and mothers. Her business, which the NHS has clinically trialled, was started to fulfil female health needs the wellness sector simply wasn’t serving back in 2010.

Over ten years later, many of her customers and her workforce have these same needs but are working through a pandemic too. She discusses the ‘triple burden’ working mothers face during COVID-19, how she supports her own staff, and why employers must change their attitude to flexible working.

Why was MUTU System founded and what is its main purpose?

Fifteen years ago, as a certified personal trainer and pre/postnatal specialist, I suffered massive complications and trauma in childbirth. The wellness industry at the time didn’t give me what I needed to recover, physically or mentally, so I made it launching the first MUTU System programme in 2010.

Physical changes after childbirth impact women’s mental health as well as their physical bodies, including incontinence and prolapse symptoms, which can affect more than women’s physical bodies. It can damage self-confidence, dignity, function, and daily comfort and happiness. What MUTU offers is transformative pre and postnatal care, clinically proven to address all these physical and mental health symptoms.

Explain to me what you mean by the ‘triple burden’ and why it affects home-based working mothers?

The triple burden of motherhood is a concept that sociologist Ann Oakley originally introduced about dual responsibilities—the idea that women are doing a paid job over here and unpaid domestic work, say, running a household or managing childcare, over there.

In 2021, there’s a third aspect competing for women’s time, the emotional work. Everybody’s under pressure, everybody’s anxious, everybody’s scared, and now, women are bearing the brunt of this more than ever.

To define this as a “juggle” is unfair, especially in a pandemic. When it comes to the expectations around paid and unpaid work, what we’re talking about is literally an impossibility. You cannot be in two places at once.

And with the triple burden, it’s not just about logistics. Your physical location isn’t the issue; it’s the emotional issues; you can’t be present with your kids if you’re worried about your emails, and you can’t be present in a work meeting or even close to delivering your best work if you’re trying to take care of children.

Of course, those with flexible jobs are in a fortunate position. But of course, in most families, it’s the women who make most of the sacrifices and compromises. More often than not, it’s mum who’s stepping up.

The triple burden is both cultural and systemic. Even in the most equal of partnerships, it’s deeply ingrained within us that those tasks, those chores, those responsibilities, emotional and physical, fall to women.

The mental health element has the potential to do the most damage. Aside from the fact that we will have to fight to reclaim our place in the workplace after all this, the anxiety women are experiencing keeps compounding. The rules vary depending on where you live, but the questions of, ‘do I send the kids to childcare or don’t I? If I do, am I putting my kid’s life in danger?’ This is the daily kind of decision-making that’s going to have an impact during the pandemic.

For me, the glaring lesson is that the pandemic has not affected people equally. Factors like income, gender, race, and multiple others have massively exacerbated existing inequalities, and policymakers can no longer ignore these systemic discrepancies.

How does your team operate? Does it reflect your company’s mission to empower and include women?

We operate fully flexible working. By ‘fully flexible’, I mean that we don’t only pay lip service to the concept. Team members have a total number of contracted hours to work in any given week, but when and where they perform their role is entirely up to them. We have new mums who might get some work done in the early hours of feeding or during naptimes; working parents who need to facilitate homeschooling, or school or nursery runs when that applies; disabled team members who require extensive flexibility and adaptations around comfort and daily routine, managing pain or attending appointments.

Our team works remotely and across time zones, with mutual respect and accommodation for everyone’s life and challenges, during a pandemic and at any time. We offer paid personal development hours and volunteering time, and we take the mental health and personal development of our team seriously. Our core values are discussed, practised, and celebrated within teams daily and with the whole company on our weekly virtual check-in ‘coffee break’ call. Flexible-furlough was offered to all team members to accommodate childcare needs during COVID.

How much worse is the (COVID era) working situation for working mothers with less economic privilege?

Lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have lost their job, not have been offered furlough, have employment rights in their job, have zero-hour contracts, and hold the front line or lower-paid jobs. Lower-income mothers are more likely to live in more crowded environments or close to other families, in multi-generational families, or to be deprived of green or healthy exercise space. Multiple factors mean they are going to suffer more in the current situation. When you don’t have a voice, when you have fewer rights, when your job can’t be done from home or on Zoom—and millions of jobs can’t be—the pressure is on policymakers and employers to make a difference and step up.

How can employers create a better environment for mothers during the pandemic and beyond?

Flexibility is the starting point, and we should demand this of the organisations we work for. I’m loathed to say it because, no matter how flexible a company is, working mums still can’t do two things or be in two places at once. But it does help, and we, as normal people who aren’t sitting in government, have a voice, and we owe it to others to use it.

We should be celebrating the companies and businesses that are successfully turning to the needs of working mothers and calling out the ones who aren’t. And there’s a management and leadership shift that needs to take place so that offering that flexibility doesn’t mean they dismiss her career or write her off for promotion.

As women, there are also ways to alleviate our own personal triple burden. Maybe this means outlining childcare tasks with our spouse and ensuring that both parties are contributing. Maybe it means finding a good virtual therapist to begin to process some of the trauma of the past year. Bottom line: we don’t have to go it alone.

Here are some considerations for employers to support working mothers during COVID-19 and beyond:

  • Consider implementing flexible working, including remote and flexible hours options
  • Upskill managers with implicit bias training, so they don’t consider working mothers differently
  • Reiterate support in mission statements, during internal meetings, and in job postings
  • Consider working mothers who may benefit from a voluntary office-based option, such as those who may not live in a work-friendly home
  • Be mindful of the burdens working mothers may face at home, including housework, childcare, and the potential for domestic abuse
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