The pandemic threatens to exacerbate gender inequalities and reinforce the association between women and unpaid care—unless contrary action is taken.
The pandemic has exposed the underlying and deeply-rooted inequalities between genders which have persisted despite decades-long legislative efforts and initiatives. It has not had a levelling effect but rather exacerbated gaps and made them plainly visible. A return to ‘business as usual’ might be awaited but is this the best to which we can aspire?
The coronavirus crisis has shown that radical change is possible—and at a much faster pace than anyone would have anticipated a year ago. Many assumptions about what is feasible were quickly overthrown.
Yet optimism as to the impact on gender equality is scarce. Almost one in five adults surveyed by Ipsos earlier this year, in Poland, Spain and Italy, expected a setback in gender equality after the pandemic and believed women would become less equal than men in their countries. Only 3-4 per cent expected an improvement in women’s position.
This shows an urgent need to rethink career and household structures for women—and men—in light of the crisis, so that the pessimistic scenarios can still be avoided.
Women’s over-representation in non-standard forms of work affects their employment prospects in the short run. Temporary and part-time employment shrank more than regular jobs when lockdown measures were introduced, serving as a buffer in particular in sectors faced otherwise with a halt to business activity.
Persisting uncertainty, fuelled by the ensuing waves of the pandemic which have delayed and reversed openings, might deter employers from offering permanent contracts to new hires. Women then risk finding their way back to the labour market through only contingent employment, scarring their employment and earnings prospects.
Sectoral gender segregation is yet another obstacle to women’s post-pandemic employment prospects. Feminised sectors of the labour market, such as health and care services, may have gained unprecedented visibility and appreciation. One-off bonuses and clapping are however insufficient in the long run to address the structural undervaluation of work in these sectors and to encourage men to take up these jobs.
Bearing the brunt
The feminisation of health and care services reinforces the association of women with caring roles beyond the labour market. This became evident as women bore the brunt of additional care and housework burdens inflicted by lockdowns. Changes in work organisation will hence still affect women differently than men, especially in countries where traditional gender norms prevail.
One example is teleworking. Women now work from home more often than men—yet prefer to work away from it. In a Kantar survey in Poland this year, 44 per cent of women reported working better in the workplace away from home, compared with 32 per cent of men.
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For new models of work organisation to perform just as well for all, equality in shouldering additional unpaid work is a prerequisite. Otherwise, the risk is that a new form of gender segregation emerges, with men returning to the office and women remaining home-based workers—conveniently performing paid and unpaid work from the same location.
A significant increase in men’s involvement in childcare and domestic work during confinement has the potential to challenge social norms and the gendered division of labour. Periods of intense involvement of fathers in unpaid care and housework in general lead to their long-term engagement and a more egalitarian distribution of caring responsibilities. But the lockdowns will likely be too short—even if we might feel they have lasted a decade already—to achieve an enduring effect.
After the pandemic, this should be achieved with appropriate parental-leave policies. These considerations should then inform the design of measures at national level implementing the work-life balance directive.
Another key consideration is the gender pay gap. When couples are faced with an increase in domestic and care work, the lower earner—in most cases the woman—is more likely to put employment on hold.
Reduction in the gender pay gap and blurring of the division of labour in the family are then intrinsically connected objectives. The proposed EU directive to strengthen the application of the principle of equal pay must be bold enough to be a game-changer in this regard.
The pervasive association of women with caring roles can become internalised and hold women back in their career progression. A recent survey in Poland found that most women in professional and managerial occupations considered their role in the organisation as supportive (61 per cent) and helping (37 per cent), rather than that of a leader (27 per cent).
If models of arranging work remain unchanged, this places a big question mark against the prospects for women’s employment. Female workers should not be expected to adapt to forms of work organisation which for 65 per cent of them are incompatible with other life obligations. It is time to make working norms, especially those related to working time, compatible with a gender-equal society. This will be an important trigger towards an equal division of unpaid work.
When more than one in three women (39 per cent) in high-skilled occupations feel they would need to sacrifice their personal and family life to progress in their careers, it is clear the current model is deficient: the workplace is in large measure responsible for the reproduction of gender norms and the gendered division of roles.
The solution is not for employers to make special allowances specifically for working mothers, or women with other care obligations, as this would only push them further into the stereotypical role of main carers—their career coming second, lacking an equal footing with men in the labour market. The aim should be that all workers, irrespective of gender, engage in care or other unpaid work equally. Employers should thus design workplaces which are in general accommodating to the idea that all workers—not just the female proportion—also perform reproductive labour and have other personal obligations.
In periods of increased unemployment and very clear sectoral demarcation of job losses, acceptance of poor work and employment conditions is increased by lack of alternatives. This holds true especially for vulnerable workers, including women—who, as recent studies show, are indeed rather pessimistic about their employment prospects after the pandemic.
In the coming months, the European Commission will be assessing national development plans submitted by the member states in the framework of the Next Generation EU funds. The ambition should be to create growth that is not only environmentally but also socially sustainable—with job quality and worker rights at the heart of the assessment.
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.
Agnieszka Piasna is senior researcher in economic, employment and social policies at the European Trade Union Institute in Brussels, focused on job quality, labour-market policies and regulation, working time and gender issues. She co-ordinates research in the framework of the ETUI project on contingent and platform work.