But some post-pandemic changes might be positive ones, and there are suggestions that gender equity might be one of the winners from this crisis.
There are also suggestions of the opposite – that existing inequalities between genders will be reinforced by the privations of the corona crisis, and women will be the bigger losers from the economic fallout.
One thing is certain: this crisis has brought into sharp relief how much we rely on the low-paid labour of predominantly female workforces.
Practical skills are far more important than the abstract ones that make all the money. It is cleaners, supermarket attendants, nurses and childcare workers we need now.
According to CNN, some 1.3 billion children globally are staying home from school, and on my rough calculations that means more than 2 billion parents are realising how grossly they have underestimated the value of teachers.
Will these jobs be rewarded with increased wages and an improved social status in our post-pandemic world? I doubt it. But I hope we will remember – and not let others forget – how invisible much women’s work can be, and how neatly market forces have divorced the social worth of many jobs from the remuneration attached to them.
And what about those 1.3 billion children? Who is home-schooling them, feeding them and supervising their playtime? In some households, the work intensification will be equally shared between two working parents.
In some households we will see a similar effect to the revolution in women’s work we saw during World War II. Female essential workers such as nurses and supermarket attendants will leave the home, either sending their kids to school or daycare, or leaving their partners to do the childcare. But in many homes, there will be a snap-back to traditional gender roles.
As Helen Lewis wrote recently in The Atlantic, the coronavirus “smashes up” the bargain struck between many couples: “We can both work, because someone else is looking after our children.” Instead, Lewis writes, “couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit”.
In Australia the gender pay gap hovers at almost 14 per cent, and women are far more likely to be working part time; 44 per cent of our working women have part-time jobs compared with 16 per cent of working men.
Any heterosexual nuclear family crunching the numbers will deem it more sensible for the woman’s job to take the back seat during the corona crisis. Such gender divides are unlikely to shift during a crisis that forces us all back into the home, deep into the pre-existing dynamics of our family units.
This is a grim prospect for households where women already do paid work and shoulder much of the home-work. It is most grim in households where women and children are subjected to violence and other forms of abuse.
But for functional households headed by two parents who are both trying to work, and who work it all out, the corona crisis might bring about some quiet changes that will last.
Previously, the messy juggle between work and children has been largely borne by women, who make countless micro-adjustments during their careers to fit the model of the so-called “ideal worker”, a person with a total commitment to their work, who can work 9 to 5, five days a week, and happily do more if required. Few people, male or female, can maintain such a facade under present conditions.
During lockdown, work bleeds into family life at every moment, with the exuberance of the little girl who became an internet sensation when she interrupted the BBC News interview her dad was trying to do about North Korea. Children storm into Zoom meetings. Daily exercise has to be squeezed between deadlines. The television is a babysitter and everything is a bit of a mess.
Women know this already. We know what it’s like to do paid work while the pram is parked in the hallway, to appropriate the famous quote from English writer Cyril Connolly. The difference is that now none of us has to pretend the pram isn’t there.
All working parents are in the same boat, and the new working conditions mean everyone is accepting the less-than-ideal, and forgiving mistakes. We have latitude for the messiness, whereas previously we paid lip service to it.
“Flexibility” and “work-life balance” have moved from the pages of the official, female-friendly HR policy and into the lives of everyone fortunate enough to be able to work from home. Parents are discovering that while productivity is not usually enhanced by the proximity of children, you can still get the job done.
Maybe that’s some knowledge we can keep, when all this is over and we try for the snap-back.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards