COVID-19 has been characterized by widespread unemployment, job displacement and millions of lost lives. The pandemic has proved to be disastrous and is said to have long lasting impacts, depriving the world of its recent growth and achievements. Recent reports suggest that the effects of the crisis have not been distributed equally and have further exacerbated gender disparity. Owing to the pandemic, women are bearing the brunt of the social and economic disruption across the globe and continue to be at a loss of personal and professional growth in an even more gender regressive world.
As a result of slowed economic growth and strict lockdowns in various parts of the world, women have been at the receiving end of losing their jobs and a means to their livelihood. Being deprived of financial stability in times of crisis, women have become increasingly vulnerable and have little to no choice but to depend on others for sustenance. According to an ILO report, women workers have suffered disproportionate job and incomes losses as a result of two main reasons: their dominating presence in the hardest-hit sectors of hospitality, entertainment, and other services, and their overrepresentation among low wage workers on the frontline - including home health aides, nurses and nursing assistants. As of 2020, women account for 54% of workers in hotel and food services globally, and 61% of workers in arts, entertainment, and other services, compared to their overall 38.7% share of the global workforce. Globally, over 70% of workers in healthcare and social services are women. The relatively high representation in the hardest-hit sectors has led to larger declines in employment for women than men, in various countries such as Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, the Republic of Korea, Spain, and the US (Figure 1).
Minority women, particularly women of colour, are disproportionately represented among low-wage employees and are at risk of losing their jobs in most developed countries. Although women's projected job growth is expected to outpace men's in 2022, it will still be insufficient to return women to pre-pandemic employment levels. The stark difference in the unemployment numbers of women as compared to men indicates that women have excessively borne harsher consequences as a result of a shrunk labour market.
As workplaces shut down and strict lockdowns were imposed all across the world, workers shifted to the new normal of ‘work from home' or ‘telecommuting’ which led to men and women spending more time at home. Feminist economists have spent decades studying unpaid work at home, which was reinforced by the lockdown and stay-at-home orders. COVID-19 proved not only to be a major health and economic issue but is also posing major issues regarding social norms around the gendered distribution of care work. In times of a public health crisis, daily life is altered in a way that it may re-entrench gender norms, but at the same time, it also offers the opportunity to disrupt them. Several reports that studied the gendered division of work during COVID-19 within the home suggest that household work has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women. While both men and women reported an increase in domestic and unpaid care work, the increase in the case of men was largely restricted to one or two activities while in the case of women, it was mostly three or more.
The pandemic has amplified the need for care work not only due to school close-downs or disruptions in long term care institutions but also because of a growing need for care required at home because of the virus. The crisis points towards a greater need for care, both medical care by paid healthcare personnel as well as care in the home. These issues have garnered attention as more parents are staying home and telecommuting while also handling household chores at the same time. It is argued whether the adoption of telecommuting for many employees is changing gender distribution of care work within households and causing conflict in negotiating boundaries between work and family. A research study by Dunatchik et al. suggests that despite greater flexibility enabled by remote work, division of labour remains highly gendered in the United States. COVID-19 has revealed how the normal functioning of economic institutions and labour markets combine with gender roles to require women to do more work than men. Although many of these challenges faced by women are not unique, rather these impacts are just exacerbated exponentially as a result of COVID-19.
The increased demand for care work is deepening already existing inequalities in the gendered division of labor. As schools closed down, mothers also spent additional time taking care of their children and home-schooling them. With the lack of availability of institutional and community child care during the pandemic, working parents resorted to providing care on their own, in which case, unpaid childcare provision has been falling more heavily on women, constraining their ability to work. Women performed more care work comparatively, partly because of the persistence of the adherence to traditional gender roles and partly because of the structure of women’s economic participation, which is more likely to be part-time, flexible, and low-paying. Additional caring responsibilities reduce productivity which will mean women could be more likely to be neglected for promotions, thereby negatively impacting lifetime incomes including pensions.
Without financial support, family-friendly policies, and proper child care arrangements, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on women’s employment will have long-lasting repercussions for women’s future occupational trajectories, opportunities, and lifelong earnings. Periods of prolonged unemployment lead to a reduction in skills and talents, loss of social networks, fewer employment prospects, and greater job insecurity. With additional benefits of retirement pensions and other employment and health-related benefits out of women’s reach, they will be disproportionately vulnerable to poverty and financial dependency, forcing them to revert to traditional gendered divisions of labour.
To reverse the impacts of a gender regressive world posed by COVID-19 and aim for a gender-equal world, economic policy should be constructed within a broader and feminist framework rather than being solely concerned about output-based metrics such as financial stability and economic growth. Gender equality should be at the core of the recovery effort and gender-responsive strategies should be put in place. There should be increased investment in the care economy as health, social work and education are major generators of employment, especially for women. Care leave policies and flexible working arrangements should be encouraged to ensure a more equal division of work at home between women and men. Government subsidies should replace pay for workers who are unable to work while caring for children when schools and daycares are closed due to the pandemic. Unemployment benefits or other cash transfer schemes should be extended to those resigning from employment to provide child care or other unpaid care work due to the pandemic.
Lastly, women’s participation in decision making bodies should be encouraged and promoted to initiate social dialogue around these urgent issues. As evidenced by previous outbreaks, gender analysis should be incorporated into preparedness and response efforts to improve the effectiveness of health interventions to achieve gender and health equity goals. A comprehensive response to COVID-19 should emphasise care work as an integral part of the economic system where the successes of policy systems should be judged by how well they promote human well-being for all.
Written by Mabad Ali (email@example.com)
Edited by Mehak Vohra