Since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, Alexandra has been working incessantly. A senior manager at a law firm, she wakes up at 6 AM, showers quickly, then dives in with her husband to their gruelling schedule. “It’s exhausting”, she says. They both have high-pressure jobs, and take one- to two-hour shifts with their 18 months old until his bedtime, at 8:30 PM. They then have a few hours to catch up on more work, clean their house in the Beaches neighbourhood in Toronto, and collapse into bed around midnight.

Women’s “second shift” is nothing new, but it has been accentuated in the current pandemic. With school and daycare closures in place around the world, millions of parents of young children have had a similar set up – schedules, shifts, and exhausting work in the evenings – for 8 weeks or more. Although some jurisdictions around the world are beginning to re-open schools and daycares, this strategy is complicated with social distancing measures and may eventually be reversed. The fallback, as in most times of crisis, is to rely on mothers, who have compromised their careers to take on child-rearing tasks. However, society is missing out on the critical contribution of young, skilled women to find sustainable solutions to a compounding crisis. And as they slip further and further away from their work, this is likely to get worse.

Laurence, a documentary filmmaker, feels worn out. “I have a flexible schedule”, she says, “while my husband has calls at specific times”. Although she has been the higher earner, she now lacks the mental space to work, and has had to fit in an hour here and there while managing her son’s online learning and her two younger children. “At first I was really determined to get some work done, but after a while I started feeling overwhelmed and tired, so I had to lower my expectations.” 

In many cases, women that have spouses are finding them to be supportive, as they are also working hard to juggle remote work and increased childcare duties. However, even when they make less than their partners, men have a higher tendency to identify and take the time and mental space that they need, while many women feel that they must make their family’s needs come before their own. 

Former Quebec Minister of Finance Monique Jérôme-Forget, wrote a book on the importance of women in the economy in 2009. ”The exodus of female brainpower comes at a great cost”, she says. Women, who in most domains represent more than 50% of the university-educated population, make important economic and strategic contributions that cannot easily be replaced. Jérôme-Forget notes that women face immensely more obstacles than men in their careers and may thus be better equipped to deal with the incredible pressure and ambiguity that is leadership, particularly in times of crisis.

Meanwhile, Forbes has reported that the countries that are the most successful at fighting the pandemic are led by women. Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland, Norway and Denmark have all been characterised by leaders who have been truthful, decisive, innovative and empathetic. 

While the women who are able to take leadership positions are thriving, the reality is a striking imbalance between women as frontline workers and women as leaders and strategists. Globally, UN Women reports that less than a quarter of women are elected to parliament. Only 23 are head of state or head of government, all but 3 countries have less than 50% representation in parliament (or the equivalent house), and 3 countries – Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and Vanuatu, strikingly have no female legislators.

In this crisis, where are the female thinkers, strategists and leaders, those who might be able to come up with and coordinate meaningful solutions? Many of them are at home, struggling under the enormous mental and physical load that is working two full time jobs – maintaining their careers with an economic crisis looming, and tending to the educational, emotional and physical needs of their young children. 

“Sometimes I feel like I am doing the minimum”, says Alexandra. “I have dropped off when it comes to strategy and vision, and just stick to accomplishing immediate tasks.” Lisa, an urban planner working for the city of Toronto, adds: “I feel like I am being weighed down and I am not able to climb back up.”

A vaccine might not be available until mid-to late 2021. Until then, countries will be mitigating the crisis and making critical policy decisions that will affect nearly every human being, globally. Let’s ensure that we haven’t lost the mothers’ contributions in the meantime.