The coronavirus crisis has highlighted—and widened—the persistent discrimination, disadvantage and injustices women face.
If anyone believed that gender equality was close to being achieved, the pandemic has brutally laid bare the systemic inequalities built into numerous aspects of women’s lives—from pay, employment and work-life balance to safety at work and in the home. Hard-won gains of recent decades are under threat, due in part to a creeping backlash against women’s rights which was already under way in some countries.
Women have suffered disproportionately during the crisis, due to longstanding failures to tackle gender discrimination and create a fairer social and economic environment for both women and men. The paradigm guiding our economies for the past four decades has led to a crisis of insecurity, hitting women hardest and threatening to reimpose the gender stereotypes of the 1950s.
Covid-19 has demonstrated how vital care work is for society and the economy. Yet this remains grossly undervalued and the burden—in the public and private spheres—still falls mainly on women.
Women make up 76 per cent of the 49 million care workers in the EU, without taking account of the many undeclared domestic carers. Although both female and male healthcare workers are exposed to the virus, women make up a higher share (72 per cent) of those infected globally. Healthcare workers have faced long working hours, leading to problems reconciling work and family life and generating more stress, anxiety and depression.
Carers fill some of the most undervalued, under-paid and precarious jobs in the EU. More than half the personal carers in health services are among the 30 per cent lowest-paid workers. Domestic helpers, often coming from migrant backgrounds, tend to be irregularly employed with low wages (82 per cent are among the 20 per cent lowest paid) and poor working conditions, and are vulnerable to violence and harassment.
This is the product of inadequate funding for public services—including health and social care—with women forced into part-time or insecure jobs as the only way to combine work with care for their families.
More than 30 per cent of women in the EU work part-time and they occupy a large share of jobs in the informal economy, generally with fewer labour rights as well as less health protection and other fundamental benefits. They are much more likely to take time off to care for children and relatives. During lockdown, with school and office closures, women have been the ones juggling childcare, home-schooling and teleworking, often at the expense of their own physical and mental health.
Over the last year, in working families with children under 12, women have spent on average 62 hours a week on childcare and 23 hours on housework, compared with 36 and 15 hours respectively for men. Eurofound reported that 29 per cent of women found it hard to concentrate on their jobs because of care duties, as against 16 per cent of men.
There is a direct link between the unequal division of unpaid care in households and gender inequalities in the labour market. Dealing with the bulk of unpaid care work, including its mental burden, hinders women’s access to, and ability to remain in, work. In most countries where unpaid care is shared more equally between women and men, women have higher employment rates and gender pay gaps are lower.
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The pandemic has affected women not just as carers but across a wide range of sectors. Altogether, about 84 per cent of working women aged 15-64 are employed in services, including retail, hospitality and tourism, which have been hardest hit by lockdown and face serious job losses. The pandemic has particularly affected sectors where, as a result of gender segregation, more women are employed. For example, women make up 82 per cent of all supermarket cashiers (see bar chart), who suffer high exposure to contact with the virus.
Sales roles by gender (%)
Another alarming consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in gender-based violence, specifically domestic violence targeting women and girls. About 50 women die as a result of domestic violence every week in the EU and this has increased during lockdown. Around the world, some 243 million women and girls have suffered sexual or physical violence at the hands of a partner or family member in the last 12 months. In France alone, reported incidence of domestic violence has increased by 30 per cent since March 2020, and the United Nations warns of a worsening situation if lockdowns continue.
Some countries claim to have put in place additional measures to counter gender-based violence during the pandemic. But others have used the cover of Covid-19 to launch attacks on women’s rights.
In Poland, a highly-contested new law bans abortion in virtually all circumstances. The right-wing government is moving close to pulling out of the Council of Europe Istanbul convention against violence against women, in favour of a putative alternative treaty banning abortion and denying the human rights of LGBTIQ individuals. The EU, and six of its member states, have yet to ratify the convention, while Turkey, a Council of Europe member, has recently announced its withdrawal.
Employers, legislators and law-enforcement bodies must urgently step up their efforts to prevent violence and harassment at work, as they are not doing enough. In a survey of European women trade union leaders, only 16 per cent said that employers had updated their policies to combat online harassment associated with telework. Only 17 per cent believed their country’s laws to tackle violence and harassment at work, including online, were being adequately enforced. The European Trade Union Confederation is calling on all member states urgently to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 on violence and harassment.
The ETUC is pressing the EU to take urgent steps to stop the erosion of women’s rights, prevent a return to the broken model of the past and ensure that post-pandemic Europe learns the lessons of earlier mistakes. Europe needs a gender-sensitive recovery strategy, which recognises the pandemic’s specific toll on women and takes action to combat longstanding inequalities. The ETUC has put forward a comprehensive set of measures to start this process.
Women workers must enjoy the pay, conditions and status they deserve. Covid-19 cannot be allowed to leave a legacy of less-equal pay, particularly as the majority of essential and front-line workers are women. It cannot be acceptable to refer to these workers as ‘low-skilled’: the vital role they have played during the pandemic, for enterprises, society and the economy, calls for a systematic re-evaluation of their pay, so that their true contribution is fully valued.
If properly amended, the European Commission’s proposal for a directive on equal pay for equal work or work of equal value and pay transparency can be a much-needed game-changer for women workers, allowing for a revaluation of female-dominated jobs, in addition to properly enforced rules on pay transparency. It is only through empowering trade unions and supporting collective bargaining that equal pay will become a reality: eradicating the gender pay gap cannot be placed on the shoulders of individual women workers.
The directive on work-life balance must be fully implemented across Europe—with the involvement of trade unions—including good quality childcare available to all parents and paid time-off for family care. It must be seen as a baseline for improving women workers’ rights, particularly in terms of paid leave and rights to request flexible working arrangements.
There must be EU-wide rules on teleworking that offer workers a choice, and guarantee equal treatment as well as reimbursement for additional costs, health and safety insurance and support, and a genuine right to disconnect.
Finally, the ETUC will keep up the pressure for the EU to take a firm stand on women’s rights, by urgently ratifying the Istanbul convention and urging all member states to do the same. This must be just the start of a major shift in attitudes, to end the daily acts of violence against women and girls and create a truly equal society.
This article is in a series on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on women, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Hans Böckler Stiftung.
Juliane Bir is head of trade union policy at the European Trade Union Confederation and co-ordinates ETUC priorities on, among other issues, social dialogue, collective bargaining and gender. Aline Brüser is adviser on gender equality at the ETUC.