Flora Watkins

Mum’s the word: Rishi Sunak’s women problem

Mum's the word: Rishi Sunak's women problem
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Just how did Rishi Sunak think it would play when he thanked ‘mums everywhere’ for ‘juggling childcare and work’ in the Commons on Tuesday? Grateful thanks? A few more #dishyrishi plaudits and calls for him to be the next PM? 

The Chancellor’s vote of thanks for the nation’s mothers in response to a question about female entrepeneurs who have children has earned him a pummelling on Twitter as social media exploded with visceral rage — from the fathers he neglected to mention as well as women. Hitherto the subject of ‘AIBU [Am I Being Unreasonable] to find Rishi Sunak attractive’- type posts on Mumsnet, he is now - rightly or wrongly - embroiled in a sexism row. 

The backlash probably came as a shock to a Chancellor who has spent the last year making people-pleasing policy announcements usually involving large sums of tax payers’ cash. He’s used to being seen as something of a Covid hero. Well, no longer. Lorraine Candy, former editor of Elle magazine, took to Instagram to castigate Sunak’s ‘ridiculous default mindset’, while Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, tweeted: ‘Erm… you know mums work too and don’t just look after the kids and make meals?’ 

But here’s what Rayner and other Rishi critics would never admit. His failure to mention fathers hit a nerve with women everywhere because his assumption is partially true, despite the tin-eared tone. The government’s handling of the lockdown has made it true. We know that working mothers are being clobbered during this pandemic, with the burden of home schooling largely falling to them. No doubt you’ve seen the statistics. For every hour of uninterrupted (professional) work managed by mothers, fathers get three (this from the Institute of Fiscal Studies). And an Ipsos Mori poll found that working mothers were 45 per cent more likely to have suffered mental health problems than the general population during the first two lockdowns.

But this iniquity — which could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality, according to the UN — needs tackling, not reinforcing with a patronising pat on the head. 

Sunak can thank mothers all he likes. But until he’s tried what thousands of parents are currently doing and attempted to do his job whilst teaching times tables and preventing World War Three from breaking out over who’s using the crayons, he would be better off keeping mum (pun intended). Or better still, opening the schools again. His comments are made all the more galling by the fact that, since MPs are classed as key workers, they are not having to suffer the consequence of their own policy decisions. 

The government seems in no particular hurry to alleviate the stress that parents are under. They’ve no idea what it’s like for your child to start screaming the moment you unmute on a crucial client meeting. Or how it feels to be refused furlough for childcare reasons (the plight of 70 per cent of women who’ve applied). That’s furlough that you’ve begged — pleaded for — because your brain, your career, your relationships, your marriage, are short-circuiting from the intolerable pressure of ‘juggling’. 

Regardless of whether or not parents are right to criticise Sunak, this isn’t the first time the Chancellor has been accused of showing a lax attitude towards the concerns of women. The government has been taken to court by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed for discriminating against women in the Chancellor’s Covid self-employed income support scheme (SEISS). It turns out periods of maternity leave are exempt from Sunak’s calculations. And this week, the government hit the headlines again with a 'Stay at Home' poster that was labelled sexist and subsequently pulled because it depicted a woman cleaning and caring for children while a man sat on the sofa. 

These Twitter storms may indeed blow over quickly. But when the Prime Minister announced on Wednesday that schools would stay closed until 8 March at the earliest, one friend messaged to say: ‘I’m drinking gin — and voting Labour’. The longer the schools stay closed, the more the government will haemorrhage support from working families. Many parents are simply too busy and stressed to complain to their MP about the toll lockdown is taking. Yet when the local elections finally come around, they may well make their feelings known. 

What might Rishi suggest next to placate us 'mums'— a £10 M&S voucher so we can treat ourselves? How about a weekly clap so the whole country can show its appreciation? 

Instead of thanks, let’s open the schools and make all parents’ lives manageable again.