Opinion: the pandemic has amplified Irish women's disproportionate shouldering of cleaning and caring compared to their male counterparts

The ability to work flexibly has been heralded as necessary for an increasingly diverse workforce who both desire and require a better work-life balance. Workers seek greater autonomy over the timing and conditions of work, flexible or reduced working time and the option to work remotely and it has been working parents – and working mothers in particular – who are seen as most likely to benefit from such arrangements. Yet many private sector industries have been slow to respond to increased demand for flexible working.

Then came Covid-19. Suddenly almost all workplaces, large and small, public and private, have had to adjust to their employees either wholly or partly working remotely. Childcare in the form of crèche, school or grandparent care became unavailable almost overnight and parents have tried to balance the care of children, (including additional responsibilities such as home-schooling) and domestic tasks simultaneously with their  employment.

For some, this has come as a relief with fewer or no commutes, no rushing for early crèche drop-offs, a more flexible family schedule and better work-life balance generally. For others, it has been stressful, managing expectations as both full-time parents and full-time workers with no help or assistance from childcare or extended family.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, psychotherapist Siobhan Murray on the challenges of managing work from home and parenting

Some proclaimed that this unprecedented situation would herald a new era in domestic equality, with men having little choice but to start putting in more hours of childcare and housework. Yet as the weeks of lockdown progressed, reports of gender disparity in how increases in domestic responsibilities were being allocated started coming out. Women were doing more childcare, domestic labour and home-schooling while also working from home. Men working from home were allowed uninterrupted time to carry out their tasks, while women similarly working from home were trying to do-it-all, their work constantly interrupted by the demands of children.

None of this should come as a surprise. Despite rapid increases in the education, skills and employment of women, the gendered allocation of labour market versus domestic production remains in place. Irish women's disproportionate shouldering of cleaning and caring compared to their male counterparts has been recognised by the OECD.

Anyone familiar with family life in Ireland will know instinctively that the "mental load" (the responsibility for the time-consuming and thankless minutiae of family life such as the maintenance of relationships, scheduling, decision-making and management) usually falls to the mother. Thus, flexible working can just reproduce and facilitate these norms rather than foster any great change at the household level. Women will seek flexible work to accommodate, leaving structural inequality in place.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Like Family, why are women still doing more housework than men - and why do they seem to worry about it more?

These developments will not come as a surprise to many of the approximately 32,000 freelance or solo-self-employed women in Ireland. It is here that the gendered effects of flexible working can be seen, as freelancers have the ability adjust their working time and conditions to suit the demands of work and family life. Studies have shown that self-employed women are more likely to cite flexibility, lifestyle or work-care motivations and are more likely to experience interruptions to their work, work fewer hours, earn less money and experience impediments to their business growth as a result of unequal parenting.

Data from the Irish Labour Force Survey shows that solo self-employed or freelance women are five times more likely than their male peers to work part-time (43% compared to 10%) and five times more likely to cite caring responsibilities for doing so (40% compared to 7%). Almost half (47%) of self-employed women work from home at least occasionally, a higher proportion than their male or waged peers.

Self-employed women are the least likely group to state that they are looking for increased working time – only 11% compared to over half of self-employed men, indicating a degree of choice in the take-up of reduced working time and supporting the idea of self-employed women are attempting to balance dual domestic and caring roles. Being married and having children are strongly associated with women’s entry into part-time self-employment, whereas the opposite is true for men.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, is housework the big sexist elephant in the room?

In this way, the working trends of self-employed freelancers in Ireland point to a situation in which flexible working reproduces gendered divisions of labour. The flexibility inherent in self-employment allows women to balance paid and unpaid work, while men’s self-employment careers remain unaffected by parental status. What’s more, these gendered trends are strengthened among professional, highly-skilled and highly educated self-employed workers. Indeed, the proportion of self-employed women in Ireland with degree or post graduate education (63%) and who work at professional or managerial-level occupations (75%) is noticeably higher than any other labour market group.

The situation of self-employed, highly educated, professional, freelance women in a variety of sectors working flexibly, often from home, in order to facilitate gendered expectations around care and domestic work resonates with some of the current reports around gendered flexibility in the time of Covid. Norms around the allocation of caring and domestic work are slow to change.

Increased availability of flexible working arrangements is a positive thing. But without structural and cultural change, women will remain both disadvantaged in terms of labour market equality and, as Sally Howard points out, "overburdened and on their feet".

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ