UK Government’s withdrawn ‘sexist’ advert hits a little too close to home

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease across the UK, we share this blog from Kevin Ralston, Vicky Gorton, Alan Marshall and Ingela Naumann, highlighting how sexist adverts inadvertently exposed the gendered impact of this pandemic. The original posting can be seen here.

UK Government post showing four houses, three of which have women and daughters doing housework and home schooling.
Image used with permission from Public Health England (PHE). Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

In March 2020, everyone was told to stay home to combat the emerging coronavirus pandemic in the UK. With the closure of schools and childcare settings many parents were (literally) left holding the baby. Nine months later, the UK government issued an  advert on social media depicting women looking after children, home schooling, and doing domestic work, while the only man in the picture is seen relaxing on the sofa (BBC, 2021). The advert has since been withdrawn after being widely criticised as sexist, but does this advert possibly capture a gendered reality lived by many? 

In the early days of lockdown, there were competing narratives of parental and family wellbeing expressed. Some found that increased family time together and less time commuting could improve family wellbeing (University of Southampton, 2021Clayton et al., 2020). Whilst others pointed to the stresses of juggling work, home schooling, childcare and other responsibilities, particularly for those in deprived areas where there was less local community support (Ruppanner et al., 2021Ipsos MORI, 2020).

A key issue in determining the impact of the first lockdown on families is that much of the early data is from internet surveys that are not nationally representative and lack data from before the pandemic to benchmark any change in wellbeing.

This blog post presents early findings from the ‘Childcare and Wellbeing in Times of COVID-19’ project*. This project combines comprehensive secondary data analysis with in-depth qualitative interviews and co-production activities to understand the impact of COVID-19 on families’ childcare arrangements and wellbeing. Here we present analysis of nationally representative and longitudinal surveys to examine the pandemic’s effect on parental wellbeing. We find that female parents were more likely than male parents or non-parents to have suffered a sharp decline in wellbeing from before the pandemic to during the lockdown. Our conclusions hold across two different nationally-representative datasets and two different measures of wellbeing.

Parent’s mental health

Using data from Understanding Society – a longitudinal study of 40,000 households – we looked at how the wellbeing of parents of children aged 0-15 had changed between Wave 9 (January 2017 to June 2019) and the special COVID survey sweep (July 2020). Wellbeing was measured using answers to twelve questions that make up the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). Higher scores on this measure correspond to worse mental health. 

Whilst the average GHQ score of respondents remained constant between 2017/19 and July 2020, we wanted to explore in more detail who was most at risk of a decline in mental health. We modelled the change in GHQ accounting for: age, gender, ethnicity, urban-rural location, marital status, economic-activity, furlough, and reported health status (including having an underlying health condition and self-satisfaction with health). Here we classed an increase of 5 points on this scale as indicating a sharp decline in mental health and wellbeing. Our model suggests that around one in four parents (of children aged 0-15) at age 30 experienced a sharp decline in mental health. This is compared to one in five of non-parents (or parents of older children), aged 30. Women with children (aged 0-15) were most likely to experience a sharp decline in mental health between 2017/19 and July 2020. Parents with more children were more likely to experience a sharp decline in their mental health. There was no significant difference between women without children aged 0-15 and men with or without children aged 0-15. This suggests that it is women with children, not women in general, who are more likely to experience a sharp decline.

Graph showing the probability of a 5-point increase in GHQ by men and women with and without children aged 0-15.

Parents’ stress

As a next step, we replicated our findings from Understanding Society using other measures of wellbeing in another dataset. The Next Steps cohort – a longitudinal study of around 16,000 people in England born in 1990 – reveals that more than half of women with children (of any age) felt more stressed during the pandemic compared to before. In comparison, around one in three men without children reported feeling more stressed during the same time period.

 % who self-reported as more stressed during the pandemic compared to before
Female (no children)45
Male (no children)28
  
Female parent59
Male parent41
n = 15,363. Source: Next Steps, Wave 1, May 2020 – COVID-19 Survey, weighted for non-response.

What other characteristics were associated with declines in mental health?

There are lots of factors that can influence mental health (Mind.org, 2017). In our analysis of Understanding Society data, younger adults, particular ethnic minorities, those never married, and those with two or more children were most likely to experience a sharp decline in their mental health. Mothers, across these categories, suffered greater mental health impacts than fathers.

Graph showing the probabilities of a 5-point increase in GHQ by different groups.

Our analysis of the Next Steps data also suggested negligible evidence for occupational measures of social class as a determinant of a sharp decline in mental health. A similar pattern is also seen in other analysis of Understanding Society data from the first lockdown where income was not associated with a change in GHQ score (Pierce et al., 2020). It is possible that the first lockdown exposed new forms of social inequality along new indicators such as access to green space, housing conditions and digital connectivity. 

It is important to remember that this data is from the early stages of the pandemic in the UK, and we anticipate that a different picture, particularly around social class and changes to mental health, could emerge as the pandemic continues. This project will report on more recent data as it is released as part of our blog series in the coming months. 

An emerging picture of parental wellbeing in COVID-19

In Next Steps and Understanding Society data we see a similar story of women bearing the brunt of lockdown stresses in the early phases of the pandemic. This overarching finding holds for self-reported assessments of stress as well as the survey instruments of symptom-based mental health. The conclusion also appears to hold for the general adult population as well as a cohort of parents born in a particular year. 

Our analysis contributes to the growing evidence of the gendered impact of COVID-19 on parental wellbeing (e.g. ONS, 2021Andrew et al., 2020).

Research has long pointed to the gendered costs of social reproduction, with unpaid care and domestic work predominantly performed by women, but with little recognition in policy and legislation (Fraser, 2016; Hoskyns & Rai, 2007). Current studies are beginning to unpack how this situation has been exacerbated during lockdown as women disproportionally shoulder the extra demands of increased caring responsibilities, home schooling and more hours of domestic work, while juggling these with paid employment (Ruppaner et al., 2021Davis et al., 2020Andrew et al., 2020). Scholars also highlight how societal neglect of care and domestic work leads to mental and physical ‘depletion’ of those performing this work, causing harm to individuals, families and communities (Rai & Goldblatt, 2020). Our results confirm this risk and at the same time, point to the centrality of childcare services and other social infrastructure in supporting families and mitigating long-term effects of the pandemic (WBG, 2020De Henau & Himmelweit 2021).

The Government advert encouraging the public to ‘stay home’ inadvertently exposes the gendered impact of this pandemic, while also illustrating the magnitude of the task ahead. Sexist adverts can be withdrawn – changing the gendered, lived realities of many women with children will be much harder.


*This research is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research & Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.


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