The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the gender gap

In times of crisis, women suffer most from the consequences of economic and social damages. This happened in the financial crisis in the early 1990s in France when many women had to return to being housewives, especially those with low schooling. This happened through the Ebola Epidemic in West Africa, and it happened in the 2008 Global Economic Crisis.

The global media has reported the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the gender gap. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, presented an overview of these effects on several themes (1). In the economic area they present that, women informal workers, migrants, youth and the world's poorest, among other vulnerable groups, are more susceptible to lay-offs and job cuts. For example, UN Women survey results (2) from Asia and the Pacific demonstrate that women are losing their subsistence faster than men and have fewer alternatives to generate remuneration. In the US, women's unemployment - which was lower than men's before the crisis - went up from 2.7 million in February (3.55 million for men) to 11.5 million in April in 2020 (11 million for men), according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (3). The unemployment rate among women reached double digits for the first time since 1948 (4). In Brazil, the National Continuous Household Sample Survey (PNADC, acronym from Portuguese) showed that 7 million women left the labor market in the last half of March, when the quarantine began (5). That is two million more than the number of men in the same situation.

Previous crises have shown that when women lose their jobs, it increases their engagement in unpaid care work, and that when jobs are scarce, women are often denied job opportunities available to men, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) (6).

The Covid-19 crisis has increased the burden of women's work. If the ends have not previously been met in an attempt to reconcile work and family, now it has gotten even worse, without the possibility of outsourcing household chores and childcare (daycare centers, schools, nannies or even grandparents). For those who were no longer financially able to subcontract this work (and they are the majority), the overload is not new; however, the closure of schools has aggravated the situation (see the Project Mães em Quarentena: Instagram @maes_emquarentena).

With more than 1.5 billion students at home as of March 2020 due to the pandemic (7), existing gender rules have put the increased demand for work on women. This constrains their capacity to carry out paid work, particularly when jobs cannot be carried out remotely. Women’s unpaid care work has long been recognized as a driver of inequality with direct links to wage inequality, lower income, and physical and mental health stressors. According to UN Women, in the global average, before the pandemic, women spent 2.5 more time on unpaid work as men (8).

Researchers explored the U.S. Current Population Survey to investigate changes in mothers’ and fathers’ paid work hours from February through April 2020. They found that mothers with young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during this period. This increased the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50% (9).

A landmark survey of 20,000 working mothers conducted between 16-18th July 2020 by the British NGO Pregnant Then Screwed (10) shows that 81% of the surveyed women need childcare to be able to work, but 51% do not have the necessary childcare in place to enable them to do their job. They state this lack of childcare is destroying women’s careers. They are being made “unproductive”. They are being forced to cut their hours. They are being treated negatively all because they are picking up the unpaid labor.

In Germany it has been reported that the Corona Virus has highlighted the old social models still present in our cultures; in most families, children and the household chores are under the responsibility of women, while men always find a way to practice their paid jobs (11). Women are experiencing terrible backwardness, and we will regress on three decades of progress in gender equity issues (12).

The confinement and the new normal in Spain leaves women exhausted, stressed and devoting more hours to unpaid care work than their male counterparts. Some work at dawn to be able to handle everything. The new normal slays women (13).

The pressure for single mothers is even more intense. There are more than 11 million in Brazil, the majority black (14). Mothers that are socially and economically vulnerable are being most affected by the crisis. The level of stress is so great that many have serious suicidal thoughts (15).

Despite the burden of work on women, they are fundamental in fighting the pandemic with many serving as frontline workers. Globally, women make up 70 percent of the health workforce, especially as nurses, midwives and community health workers, and are responsible for the majority of service staff in health facilities as cleaners, launderers and caterers. However, in the health sector, women are still paid much less than their male counterparts and hold only 30% of the leadership positions (16).

Despite all the difficulties, the pandemic gave us many points of reflection. Our values and priorities were put in check. The video by Tomos Roberts (Tomfoolery) (17), which went viral on social media, presents some of these reflections: exaggerated consumerism, the degradation of nature, the deterioration of social and family relationships and virtual reality instead of real life. In times of compulsory home office, a window was opened to show us that work is an important part of our life, but not the only one. We are fathers and mothers; we have some responsibilities that can no longer be outsourced even if we want to outsource them (18).

For Andrea Cruz, CEO of SERH1 Consulting, struggles for a work-life balance are already happening, led mainly by the new generations. And, regardless of gender and industry, we already had concerns about values and purpose when making career decisions (19).

It is time to change. More reflections and discussions about work-life balance and gender equity, in order to encourage strides towards a fairer and healthier society? You can read in my book "30 Hours: A game-changing proposal for work-life balance and gender equity".

Guest author: Dr. Nadiane Smaha Kruk

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

Who is Nadiane Smaha Kruk?

Nadiane Smaha Kruk is from Curitiba, Brazil. She graduated in Civil Engineering, with a Master and Doctorate in the Water Resources field. Until 2015, she worked as a Professor at Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA). Since 2015, she lives in Germany, where she had the opportunity to work at Technische Universität Hamburg (TUHH) as a Research Scientist. With the support of the DAAD, she studied for a year at the TU Berlin and conducted research during her doctoral studies at the University of Leipzig in 2005. She is the author of the book “30 Hours: A game-changing proposal for work-life balance and gender equity“.

To the profile of Nadiane Smaha Kruk

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March 2021

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