While women appear to be more resilient than men to Covid-19 in terms of health outcomes, that is not the case when it comes to the economic and social fallout.
The imminent downturn in the wake of the lockdowns across Europe is likely to affect women’s job prospects more than men’s, the main reason being gender imbalances across different jobs in the economy.
First, except for healthcare, men are more likely to work in what are considered essential economic activities, such as transport, protective services (policing, for instance), farming, and maintenance and repairs, so they are more protected from unemployment. Secondly, the Covid-19 crisis has hit many services that involve frequent contact with customers and clients, and for which telework is not possible, such as retail, leisure and personal-service activities, hospitality, and travel and tourism—some of the sectors in which women tend to dominate numerically.
However, for those who have remained in employment, opportunities to work from home have significantly expanded. In April, Eurofound conducted a survey across the EU to find out how Europeans were coping with life during the pandemic. This confirmed that a lot of workers who were working from home had never done so before.
It also showed that while before the crisis more women (64 per cent) than men (57 per cent) had never teleworked, women had now started to do so to a greater extent—39 per cent of women compared with 35 per cent of men. And if we take a more granular look, we see that the figure rises to almost half of women with young children (46 per cent).
Pre-pandemic, an increase in women teleworking would have been seen as a positive development, evidence that working time was becoming more flexible and work-life balance improving. But teleworking in a time of social distancing and lockdown is proving burdensome for many working mothers as they juggle work, home-schooling and care, all in the same pocket of space and time.
Care as ‘women’s work’
Even before the crisis and despite more equal sharing of parenting and housework between the sexes in recent decades, care has continued to be mostly women’s work. The 2016 European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) found, for example, that women spent 39 hours a week on average taking care of their children, against 21 hours spent by men. Women devoted an average of 17 hours a week to cooking and housework, compared with 10 hours for men. Today, as a result of lockdowns, women’s share of unpaid work is likely to have increased considerably, with children out of school and any older dependents in the home needing more care.
Concentration of activity in the home also means that conflicts between work and home life are sure to be on the rise and our data show a general deterioration of work-life balance among workers in Europe. In April 2020, around 10 per cent of Europeans found it difficult to concentrate on their work due to their family responsibilities; that proportion rose to 13 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women among those teleworking.
These figures are much higher than reported in previous surveys: the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey, for example, recorded only 4 per cent of respondents having this problem. The same survey found that 13 per cent of people felt that their jobs prevented them from giving the time they wanted to family, while 15 per cent said they worried about work when they were not at work. In April 2020, many more people were in this situation: 19 per cent felt their work was interfering with family life, while 30 per cent were worrying about work outside of it.
Among parents of young children (up to and including 11 years old), our data confirm that work-life conflicts are troubling women more than men, as illustrated in Figure 1. For instance, almost one-third of these women found it hard to concentrate on their work, as against one-sixth of men, while family responsibilities prevented more women (24 per cent) than men (13 per cent) from giving the time they wanted to work. But work is also impinging on family life: 32 per cent of women in this group said their job prevented them from giving time to their family, against 25 per cent of men.
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Figure 1: Percentage of women and men with young children experiencing work-life conflicts
Comparing men and women who are teleworking, the biggest gender divide is with respect to family preventing them from giving time to their job: 10 per cent of women and 7 per cent of men doing telework reported the issue. Percentages are much higher and the gap even wider for parents of small children—32 per cent of women, against 22 per cent of men. Similar differences were recorded with respect to difficulty concentrating on the job because of family and being too tired after work to do household chores.
The strain caused by these conflicts may be affecting the mental wellbeing of women more than men, especially those with young children, although more research is needed to confirm this. According to our data, in April 2020 women with children aged 11 years old or younger were more likely than men with children in the same age range to feel tense (23 per cent versus 19 per cent), lonely (14 versus 6 per cent) and/or depressed (14 versus 9 per cent). The pattern recurred for women and men with children aged 12-17, although the differences were narrower.
Figure 2: Percentage of women and men feeling tension, loneliness and depression, by children
The financial impact of the crisis has been similar for both sexes: 38 per cent of women and men said their financial situation had worsened and that they expected it to deteriorate further. Because women are more likely not to be in paid work or to be in low-paid and temporary jobs, however, they are more financially vulnerable than men.
More women (24 per cent) than men (22 per cent) across Europe reported in our survey that they had difficulty making ends meet. This was particularly evident among women with children, where 32 per cent were struggling to make ends meet, compared with 29 per cent of men with children. Men have also been more able than women to maintain their standard of living: 23 per cent of men had no savings at all, compared with 31 per cent of women, while 16 per cent of men compared with 12 per cent of women had enough savings to cover them for more than 12 months.
Figure 3 highlights the contrast between women and men with and without children in terms of the percentages who were found to be highly insecure financially (no savings) and those who were comfortable (enough savings for more than 12 months). It shows that among those with children a higher proportion of women had no savings and a lower percentage were comfortable compared with their male counterparts; a similar pattern was evident among women and men without children.
Figure 3: Financial security of women and men with and without children compared (%)
High financial uncertainty is undoubtedly part of the reason for the survey finding of reduced optimism among Europeans. Among men, 48 per cent were optimistic about their own future and 34 per cent were optimistic about their children’s or grandchildren’s future. For women, the equivalent proportions were 43 and 33 per cent, respectively.
Optimism was substantially higher in the 2016 EQLS, and the gender gap in optimism about one’s future was less, with 65 per cent of men reporting optimism about their future, compared with 62 per cent of women. And there was no gender difference regarding optimism about children’s or grandchildren’s future at that time, with 57 per cent of both sexes reporting optimism for coming generations.
While some of the gender-unequal impacts of the current crisis might be temporary and could reverse once we have fully emerged from lockdown, others could have long-lasting consequences. It is essential, therefore, that the economic and social inclusion of women is at the centre of recovery measures.
The European Commission has prioritised the eradication of pervasive gender inequality in society, recently publishing its Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025. This commitment should help focus policy-makers on the different pandemic experiences of women and men, to ensure that support is targeted effectively at those most in need. This is not just to defend the gains of recent decades in terms of gender equality or to rectify longstanding inequalities, but also to build a fairer and more resilient world for the benefit of both men and women.
Massimiliano Mascherini Is head of the social policies unit at Eurofound. He has a PhD in applied statistics from the University of Florence and has been a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney and Aalborg University. Martina Bisello is a research officer in the employment unit at Eurofound. She holds a PhD in economics from the University of Pisa.