Episode 13

Published on:

26th Aug 2020

Working parents in the Age of Coronavirus - Helen McCarthy

In this episode:

We speak to Dr Helen McCarthy, a Historian of Modern Britain at the Faculty of History and Author of Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood.  

In recent months, many working parents have had to juggle looking after kids at home with their usual jobs.We talk about how the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on working mothers. 

We take the historical perspective and the long view to try and make sense of these gender divisions. 

We talk about our reliance on childcare, the broader economic impact of the last few months on women, and how to ensure it is truly valued in the coronavirus recovery. 


Dr Helen McCarthy (@HistorianHelen), Historian of Modern Britain at Faculty of History (@CamHistory) and Fellow of St John’s College (@stjohnscam) Author of Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood @BloomsburyBooks 

More Info:



Unknown Speaker 0:00  

Hello and welcome to the other university, a podcast about the people who make Cambridge University unique. I'm your host, Nick Saffell. In this episode, we speak to Dr. Helen McCarthy, a historian of modern Britain at the Faculty of History, and author of double lives, a history of working motherhood. In recent months, many working parents had to juggle looking after kids at home with their usual jobs. We talked about how the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on working mothers. We take the historical perspective and the long view to try and make sense of these gender divisions. We talked about our reliance on childcare, the broader economic impact of the last few months on women, and how to ensure it is truly valued in the Coronavirus recovery. Just tell me a little bit about your experience of lockdown so far?

Helen McCarthy 0:52  

Well, my experience of lockdowns probably fairly similar to that of many other working parents, I've had my two primary school aged children at home for most of it, they managed to get back to school for a few weeks towards the end of the summer term. But it's been pretty intense and pretty full on. I've been trying to do my teaching and my university work. My husband, who's a lawyer, has been working at home doing some virtual court hearings, which has been a new experience for him. And it's been, you know, we've been sort of tag teaming it, trying to sort of muddle through as best we can. But it's been it's been a pretty stressful period.

Unknown Speaker 1:34  

So do you think it's changed your working practices as a family? With this sort of future mindset? Do you think it's going to change how you'll go about work?

Helen McCarthy 1:43  

Well, I've talked a lot about this with with my husband, who has only been into his chambers in central London once since the beginning of lockdown. And it certainly seems that for the legal profession, there may very well be a longer term shift towards doing a lot, a lot more online, including potentially quite a lot of court hearings, virtually. So that could be a permanent shift. And I think for universities, for my for my line of work. I mean, online teaching, obviously, is the immediate future for us, because University of Cambridge is, has announced that it will be providing all lectures online, at least for Michaelmas term, and then a great deal of my undergraduate teaching. And master's level teaching will also be online with hopefully a little bit of face to face teaching in there as well. But I don't know I mean, the future is really open, I think it will obviously come down to how soon we get a vaccine, whether we can work out some social distance, teaching methods that work really well. And how the pandemic pans out, I think over the next six months, I mean, I do think that the longer we are in this groove of doing everything online, the more likely it is that it will embed itself and become permanent.

Unknown Speaker 3:02  

Can you tell me a little bit about your your background and also about your new book?

Helen McCarthy 3:08  

Sure. So well, I teach modern British history here at the university and I have been in posted September 2018. And before that, I spent almost a decade teaching modern British history at Queen Mary University of London, which is in my land in East London. But I am a Cambridge product. So I did my undergraduate degree in Cambridge, then did my PhD in London, and worked for a little while for a think tank Think Tank demos in the early 2000s, which was a really interesting contrasting experience from from academia doing research in a very different kind of environment. But I'm originally from ethics from Colchester, where I grew up, spent most of my childhood and teenage years. And well, I think that's probably most that I can say about myself of any interest. And my book. Yes, so my book I've written a book called double lives the history of working motherhood, and it was published earlier this year in April, actually, really just a few weeks after the lockdown had started. So I initially felt quite sorry for myself launching a book under lockdown, but then realized that actually the themes of the book which are all about how mothers juggled care and paid work in the past, were incredibly pertinent, particularly given the theme of homeworking because home based waged work was actually a theme that came through very powerfully in my research, I suppose it might be something we'll be talking about a bit more in a minute. But the book is really meant to be a pretty broad big social and cultural history of mothers who worked for pay in Britain since the mid 19th century. I wanted to write a book that really just try to sort of tell the story of how women did it, how women have different social classes, women in different parts of the United Kingdom, women of different ethnicities. women doing very different kinds of jobs and in very different kinds of family circumstances. So women who had husbands women who didn't, and really just tried to kind of bring the story, paint a big picture on a big Canvas, as I say, over 150 years,

Unknown Speaker 5:17  

looking back in history with that sort of lens, what has sort of COVID taught us about the importance of childcare and labor in general,

Helen McCarthy 5:24  

I think COVID has, has exposed something well, which people like me already knew, yet, perhaps other people didn't. Which is that if you if you have a mass withdrawal of state subsidized childcare, by closing nurseries, by close by childminders no longer being able to work, by closing schools, by getting rid of after school clubs, breakfast clubs, and very importantly, by cutting off access to informal sources of childcare, so for a large chunk of the lockdown, families couldn't draw on grandparents or relatives or neighbors or friends to help out with childcare. If you withdraw all of that, then we can see what happens. And what happens is that the sexual divisions which already exist in our society, are magnified. And all of the research that's been undertaken since the lockdown shows very clearly, that it's women, it's mothers, who are shouldering the burden of childcare, of homeschooling, of housework as well in the home. And these are things that they were doing in greater quantities than men before lockdown, but it has been exacerbated and intensifies, under under the conditions of COVID.

Unknown Speaker 6:44  

So is it been equally felt across not just for industries and sort of classes as well? So you've talked about working mothers, but is it more greatly affected? The types of industries and just different types of classes?

Helen McCarthy 7:00  

Do you mean in history or currently?

Unknown Speaker 7:02  

Or both? Really?

Helen McCarthy 7:05  

Sure. So I was very interested in trying to trace different the different childcare solutions that women from different classes or in different industries adopted in the past. And there are some really important differences. So women of the middle and upper classes who on the whole didn't work for wages, but there were always exceptions. They were pioneer women, doctors, they were writers, artists, and so on. And they tended to have nannies, and governesses and servants who worked who worked in their own homes, so they were sort of pretty well suited for childcare. And also the upper middle classes, really right through to the later 20th century also made use of boarding schools. It was fairly standard to send your certainly your sons off to boarding school at quite an early age. And that was you know, perfect childcare solution. For those for those classes. For women working in the Lancashire textiles industries, which was an area which had a very strong tradition of married women's work right from the early years of the Industrial Revolution. They tend to use child minders. And these were often grandmothers, they might be relatives, they might be neighbors, women who live very close by maybe just the next street along. And they would pay those women to look after their children after that, and including often very young babies when they were going to the factory. And most other women, it's a it's a kind of mishmash of other things. So you find a lot of evidence in working class communities of older siblings looking after their younger, younger siblings as one childcare solution. And in fact, often the older daughter of the family might have been kept home from school, or might not have herself gone out to work straightaway after leaving school because she was needed to look after the home, including looking after the younger children. I mean, the one sort of common theme is that formal institutional, high quality affordable daycare I nurseries, is really the missing ingredient throughout the 19th and 20th century, that very, very low numbers of nurses and crashed with the exception of the two world wars, which we might talk about later. And really even in the late 20th century high quality affordable institutional daycare is there is not enough of it nowhere near enough of this.

Unknown Speaker 9:35  

Have we sort of fallen backwards in some way now that all responsibility for children is basically fall on fallen on the parents up finishing the burden might be equally shared. But I'm thinking about a lot of tropes at the moment and recurring themes.

Helen McCarthy 9:51  

Well, I think there's a real danger of regression. I think we're at a quite a crucial moment. Because, you know, this is we're still very much in this sort of temporary Price display phase, it's not clear now what the long term consequences of the COVID crisis will be. In terms of childcare, we know that a great number of nurseries in the UK have already said that they may not be able to reopen after the crisis has passed, because they they basically run out of cash because they weren't at the government, although they plowed billions of pounds into the furlough scheme, and into propping up other sectors, they have not done that for nursery daycare. So there's a real danger that actually when when schools come back, or when, when when when things begin to resemble, you know, turn back to something resembling normality, actually, a lot of work and parents will find that their nurseries are no longer there. And of course, with many parents who are unemployed, who lose their jobs, or who are financially struggling, they may not be able to afford to pay for nursery places. I mean, the UK has some of the most expensive daycare in the whole of Europe. So that's a big problem. So I think I think we have to, you know, we have to see what, what happens. I mean, there has been there a lot of sorts of pressure groups that have been very vocal about this. The Labour Shadow Cabinet, have been very vocal, pressing the government, but I'm afraid that government itself has not been terribly attentive or proactive on this question specifically about what happens to the childcare sector.

Unknown Speaker 11:29  

childcare in Britain is always been viewed by the government as a government, not only I shouldn't say just government, government and employers, as a sort of private matter for parents has always been the case.

Helen McCarthy 11:40  

Yes, I think that's a really good way of characterizing it. So Britain has this liberal welfare tradition, which has largely placed daycare beyond its remit. So, local authority funded nurseries, were available for families in crisis, essentially, families where it was deemed desirable for the children not to be at home with their parents. Also, local authority funded places might have been made available to unmarried mothers, for example, or single mothers, who the state did not want to support with income support, and we wanted to go out wanted to push those mothers out to work. So there's a sort of paradox there. I mean, the two exceptions would be the periods of the two world wars, when there was a very strong pressure on government to mobilize women's labor in order to to prosecute its war aims. And both during the First and Second World Wars, a huge amount of money, particularly during the Second World War was channeled into opening day nurseries for use by the children of mothers working in essential industry. And, you know, there are over 1000 of these war nurseries opened during the Second World War. And they made a huge difference. I mean, they showed you what life would be like for working mothers working full time, who could actually leave their children in a high quality, safe, highly state subsidized childcare system. But they were seen very much as temporary measures for the purpose of the emergency of the war, and in 1918, and then again, in 1945, they were nearly all closed. And the government's position then was, well, you know, we're not going to stop mothers from going out to work if they want to, because after all, we are liberal. Well, we are a liberal democracy, we don't tell women what they can and can't do. But we're not going to do anything to actually help women reconcile their caring responsibilities with their desire or their needs to work for wages. And that's something for them to sort out either by getting granny to come and look after the kids, or by paying for child minder around the corner to look after the kids. It's not something that the state has the responsibility to sort out.

Unknown Speaker 14:09  

We've had, like a couple of viruses recently, where I'm thinking, I'm just thinking of a bola Zika, and swine flu and so forth. And obviously, there must have been some sort of lessons learned. And I know you're not looking at this from a public health perspective. So I'm not thinking about that. But there must have been some lessons learned in terms of like, what it did to the labor market, and also to gender equality. You said earlier that it's dramatically affected women more than it has affected men. And I'm just thinking, have we sort of missed a trick? And are there any sort of long lasting effects that we can see, I'm thinking mainly of Africa, there must have been some gender equality issues there.

Helen McCarthy 14:47  

I'm afraid I it's a fascinating question. I'm afraid it's not something that I know very much about. I mean, my I would, my suspicion would be that you know, that policymakers In the UK might think that there might assume that there's only limited lessons to be learned from from Africa, for example, because it has such a different social structure and labor market. But I mean, but I don't actually know that. I mean, what has struck me is how, how ill prepared the government seems to have been for this, when when dealing with this particular gender issue, and often, Boris Johnson has spoken about people going back to work encouraging people to go back to the office, encouraging people to work at home. As though there is no childcare issue as though the child as though it doesn't seem to occur to him that actually, a huge chunk of the workforce now is made up of women of mothers. And you know, over 770 5% of mothers with dependent children are now in the labor market. So of course, you know, they must be doing something, someone must be looking after their kids, they must be somehow getting some childcare in order to be in the labor market. So you know, it's not a surprise, it shouldn't come as a surprise to the government. And yet, it seems as though it has that if you withdraw childcare, at a stroke, you're going to have an issue with your workforce with a large chunk of your workforce who's not going to be able to work.

Unknown Speaker 16:22  

And on a sort of a long term sort of view. What is this going to do towards women's career in the future?

Helen McCarthy 16:32  

Well, again, I think the jury's out, we have to, we have to wait and see. I mean, I think in some ways, in some respects, the cultural shift towards home working could help women, particularly perhaps, in corporate environments, which have been rather hostile to homeworking in the past, which have demanded long hours, which have a sort of culture of presenteeism of sort of being there in the office until you know, after midnight to show how committed you are. I think if there is a culture shift, and those sorts of organizations were by home working, but becomes more of a norm, that could have a positive impact in the longer term thought for working mothers and for parents more generally. But, you know, I think a lot of it will come down, as we've already discussed to the childcare issue. Because if there is no childcare working at home, as we've discovered in the lockdown is incredibly stressful. I mean, it's one thing to be working at home, having drop your kids off at school, and then being able to go and pick them up later on. And everything works very nicely. It's all very flexible. It's quite another when you're, you know, trying to do a business meeting, and you've got children kind of knocking at the door or under first. And that's not going to be good for anyone's career. So I think the two things are really related home working could help them as careers but only if the childcare issue is sorted.

Unknown Speaker 18:00  

Yeah, okay. And on that note, I'm just being very conscious of the fact that we're talking about childcare, and we're talking about working motherhood. Now that there's a discussion there, and what hap, why are they so tightly linked? How would you go about disassociation, childcare and working mothers? How could we possibly separate the two there?

Helen McCarthy 18:23  

Well, I think my book shows that you can't really because it's so historically embedded women's, these these gendered assumptions about women's responsibilities, and the sexual divisions in the home, basically, who does watch and who has seemed to have responsibility for what so childcare and housework as well, which of this often kind of lashed together, have been assumed to be women's domain for such a long time. And, and in the book, you know, going back to the 19th century, I talked quite a lot about the ideology of the family wage and the male breadwinner, family. And, you know, this is the idea that it is an ideal that was subscribed to really across social classes, and particularly promoted by by the male led trade union movement, which is that men ought to be paid a secure large enough wage on which they can keep their dependents they can keep their family without having to send the mother out to work or to send children out to work, as well. And this was very much seen as the pinnacle You know, this is this, this is the sort of vision of domestic order in which you have a male household male Head of Household who's earning us big enough and secure enough wage to look after his dependents. And that frees women then to do their proper work, their real work, the important work that they do, which is to look after the house and to bring up their children. And, you know, some families achieve that in the 19th century. A lot of them didn't, and mothers had to go out to work. And of course, many mothers actually wanted to go out to work. And this is something which I write quite a lot about in the book, it's sort of really one of the central themes about women's desires and aspirations as well as the pressures and needs to look after their families. So I think it will be impossible to tease apart the childcare issue from the gender issue. You know, until something very revolutionary happens in the family, around our assumptions, around the ways in which these sexual divisions are so deeply embedded. And you know, there are, there are lots of men who very much want to be active fathers, there are far there are men who are taking advantage of shared parental leave, in order to do it huge amounts of childcare. And we all you know, we all know these, we all know of cases where this is happening, and that's brilliant. But overall, if you look at the macro level picture, it's not that promising. One other point that I just want to make is that men on the whole still work full time and they work continuously over the life course without taking large breaks away from from paid work, that's very much still the shape the arc of the male career employment trajectory, there's still very low levels of part time working amongst men. And I think what you know, those things need to change before we can prise apart the childcare and gender issue.

Unknown Speaker 21:40  

Is that a sort of policy level that needs to catch up? Or is it a sort of cultural level that needs to catch up in terms of childcare in their mindset,

Helen McCarthy 21:48  

I think there are lots of different elements which work together. So there's a policy element. So share parental leave is a great step forward from only having two weeks of paid paternity leave. But it's still is framed around the idea that it's the woman's maternity leave, and she decides whether or not to share it with the Father to which she doesn't have to do. So other countries have a use it or lose it approach where men have a certain portion of parental leave, that is there's a loan and if they don't use it, then the family loses it, they can't give it to the to the mother. And there are arguments for and against the two different systems, I personally think that use it or lose it is the right approach. Because it's the level of symbolism, it's saying, you know, both parents have equal responsibility for the child. And here's your portion of leave. And here's your portion of leave, rather than saying it's the woman's leave, and she can choose whether or not to give some of it to the Father. So there's a policy issue around parental leave. There's also of course, of sort of broader structural issue around pay, because on the whole men earn more than women, and they're, you know, let's not get into that there's huge amount of, you know, complexity behind why that how that works. But it does mean that for many couples, if they are making decisions about who steps back for a while to look after children, or who cuts their hours, it there's often a kind of economic logic behind women stepping back because they're earning less. And then there is, as you say, the cultural issue. And I think this is where actually writing history book really helps because, you know, the legacy of decades of centuries of gender ideology, I mean, this very, very kind of strong set of deeply embedded assumptions that childcare is a woman's domain. And I think it's very, very difficult to to unpick that. I mean, it takes a very long time. Does this sort

Unknown Speaker 23:57  

of this outbreak must provide a some opportunities like to sort of think about gender and sex differences in the working environment being recorded? Can it sort of do you think policymakers and sort of researchers can take that more into account?

Helen McCarthy 24:10  

Well, I hope that the covid crisis will produce a huge amount of new knowledge about gendered practices, gendered working practices. I think it already is doing that. I mean, there's some been some great work done by the Institute Fiscal Studies and other organizations really tracking what mothers and fathers are doing at home, as well as tracking the broader impact of the crisis on men and women's employment. And there's some very interesting patterns there around, you know, women being in the front line of many NHS services, but also being hit hardest by the lockdown in sectors like retail or hospitality or tourism, that that actually employs a huge number of women. So I think you Actually the the crisis is in many ways sort of really kind of shining a light on the gendered patterns and the gendered structures of our of our labor market and economy, as well, of course, actually as well, looking at ethnicity and race and thinking about how those things intersect. And in a way, we, you know, we've all become much, much more aware, I think of, of some of these some of these issues.

Unknown Speaker 25:26  

I hear this phrase all the time that as we return to a new, no more normal, is that new, normal,

Unknown Speaker 25:32  


Unknown Speaker 25:33  

normal? How can we get on the sort of a good track now not just getting returned to normal? But what do you think the steps we can take to get to better normal?

Helen McCarthy 25:42  

Well, I don't hold out much hope. But I do think that the childcare issue is so incredibly important. And I do think that some fairly radical action needs to be taken, actually, just to get back to where we were, which was not a particularly great place. But again, you know, I hope that perhaps the crisis may have helped to focus minds on on the fragility of the childcare sector. I mean, we have this sort of infrastructure of child minders and nurseries in a voucher scheme, but actually, it's so fragile, you know, that it rests on all of these things happening at once. So I think, I think that would be a step forward, if we can, if we can sort that out and make our childcare sector more resilient. I think, again, also just to return to a theme that we've already discussed with the homeworking. I do think that there's a lot of techno utopianism in the air when we talk about home working. And it's interesting for me, because I've been researching the history of home working, and I'm very interested, actually, in some of the early debates in the 1970s and 1980s, when networked computing allowed began to allow sort of managers and executives to work from home, and then in the 1990s, with, you know, the creation of the Internet, and there's a sort of a huge amount of optimism, and rather kind of such an extreme sort of visions of of how cities could change and how the world would be transformed by these new technologies, these new communication technologies. And I think that there is a danger of actually letting that kind of thinking run away from us once more, if we don't actually focus, as I say on these questions about well, what can we learn from the experience of people working at home during the crisis, what we can learn that it's very stressful to work from home with children under foot, it's, it's, it's actually very, very challenging to learn the new, the new sort of techniques that you need to learn in order to be effective online, whether you're teaching, whether you're doing a court hearing, whether you're in a business meeting, and though that takes time and actually requires investment and training by employers, they can't just assume that people know how to do it. It's also very expensive in terms of technology. So most people I think, have just been paying for their own their own broadband bills. They've been buying themselves new laptops, buying themselves, you know, microphones and all sorts of things, which, which they otherwise wouldn't have needed to have, you know, so employers need to need to can't just assume that everyone's got a kind of great setup at home. And also, you know, the housing issue as well. I mean, a lot of people have been struggling and working from their bedroom, I'm in my bedroom at the moment, by the way, because my children are downstairs and my husband's in his office. And, you know, don't just don't have space actually to work at home. So I think we have to sort of rein in the techno utopianism and sort of really focus on what employers need to do to make homeworking work and also to overcome social isolation. Because I think that's the other big problem with home working. If you spent all day sitting at home on your own staring at a screen. That's not necessarily great for your for your well being and the longer term.

Unknown Speaker 29:10  

So Helen, it's been absolutely fascinating to talk to you and like this is such a great debate to have. So thank you so much for your time. But on that before we leave, has there been any interest in your latest book then? Because of COVID? Yes, I

Helen McCarthy 29:25  

really has. It's been very striking how many reviewers have made that connection and have found the book which of course, was written and finished long before COVID struck? And have you know, have found that the history, the historical perspective, the long view, really enlightening for them making sense of these gender divisions, these sexual divisions that we're now seeing magnified intensifies under the covid crisis, and it just sort of goes to show how important it is, I think to look back To take the long view in order to sort of understand our present.

Unknown Speaker 30:06  

Great, well thanks again for your time and you should tell everyone what the book is actually called.

Helen McCarthy 30:12  

It's called double lives history of Western motherhood and it's out with Bloomsbury. But

Unknown Speaker 30:19  

that's it from us at the We Are The university podcast. If you like what you're hearing, don't forget to head on over to Apple podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Give us a five star rating.

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We Are The University
Welcome to We are the University, a podcast which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.
Welcome to We are the University, a podcast which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.

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