The impact of the pandemic on women

06 July 2021 /

7 min

It has been over a year since words like “lockdown”, “face masks” and “social distancing” entered our daily lives. Today, we are going through a multidimensional crisis which has spread through the European Union and the entire world with spillover effects on the economy, education and gender equality. 

Typically, crises are never gender neutral, and this pandemic is no exception. Women’s economic and productive lives have been affected differently from those of men. They earn less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, which normally translates into a harder access to social protection and less saving capacity. Economic insecurity also has a snowball effect on the lives of women in the long-term, mainly through its impact on education and employment. Along with income loss, the unpaid care and domestic work burden has exploded. The closure of schools and daycare centers has forced women to take on most of the additional unpaid work at home, which combined with the increase of unemployment and domestic violence exacerbates socio-economic inequalities between women and men.

The care crisis

The pandemic has deepened the “care crisis”, which lies at the foundation of economy, society and households. With social distancing and lockdown measures, social bonds across and among generations –such as raising children and supporting the elderly– have been disrupted. Women have always been responsible for the care work that takes place within the household, an activity that has never been considered a part of the productive economic sector.

In Europe, a care crisis has been going on since the beginning of the century. Two factors have contributed to this: the mass incorporation of women into the labour market, and the progressive ageing of the population due to the increase in life expectancy. This left fewer caretakers available to fulfill the needs of a larger number of elder and dependent people. The situation got aggravated by the economic crisis of 2008, which brought neoliberal policies and austerity to the EU. This reshaped social reproduction, reducing the resources provided by the Welfare State and transferring this burden to families. The cuts in public expenditure and social protection worsened the care crisis, putting a greater deal of pressure on women.

The consequences of the pandemic are not gender neutral 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the deterioration of the care crisis is evident. Women have absorbed the unpaid and unrecognized care work, and the few conciliation measures proposed by the European Union and national governments have not lead to a real difference. The sanitary crisis has challenged the deficient domestic care system, which consumes most of women’s time and lives. 

Care work is inevitable and essential, but it is linked to precariousness and based on overburdening women. This has been evidenced by domestic workers, cleaners and nursing homes workers, very low-income jobs that are mainly occupied by women. While women healthcare workers are currently on the frontline of the COVID response (they represent the 76% of the healthcare and social-care workers in the EU), they still face discrimination and wage disadvantages. During this past year, they have seen an unprecedented rise in workload, health risk and challenges to their work-life balance. 

Women are also overrepresented in informal economic sectors, which have been the most affected by the lockdown measures. Many women have been left without jobs and, therefore, without income, forcing them to stay in the private sphere of the home and take on more domestic responsibilities. Domestic workers are highly vulnerable to economic shocks, and in the EU 95% of them are women. Most of them work part time and come from a migrant background, often being employed as undeclared workers in the informal economy. Even before the pandemic, this sector lacked basic worker protections. 

The pandemic has also affected all the women responsible for kids and dependent persons, which have experienced the difficulty of dealing with care and working from home during the lockdown. As quarantine measures kept people inside, schools and day-care facilities closed, the burden of domestic work exploded. Many parents working from home have been struggling to reconcile their responsibilities. The household has become the place where everything occurs: care, education, socialization and productive work. The response to the increasing care workload, which should be collective/collaborative, falls on women. Disease outbreaks increases their duties looking after elderly and ill family members, as well as kids who are out of school. Greater work-life conflict is one of the factors leading to women’s employment being more affected than men’s, with potential long-term impacts on women’s lives.

Gender violence has also intensified with lockdowns, since women’s access to assistance and prevention services has been very limited. The European Union is not an exception: the number of reports on domestic violence in France increased by 32% during the first week of lockdown, in Lithuania by 20% in the first three weeks, and Spain reported an 18% rise in calls at the end of March 2020. This increase in care duties, domestic violence, unemployment and poverty is exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities. Women are not a homogeneous group, and the fallout is being more severe for the most vulnerable of them: migrant workers, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, refugees and asylum seekers, single mothers and youth within many others.

A gendered recovery?

To this date, no country in the world has achieved an equal share of unpaid work between women and men. Nevertheless, men have never been more involved in family life than today, with more fathers, especially the highly educated ones, doing unpaid work (shopping, house repairs…), even if the time dedicated to child care remains low. In countries such as Norway, where men’s participation in childcare has increased in the past decades, care policies and incentives for fathers to take parental leave have played an important role in improving the redistribution of unpaid care work. The situation in Sweden is quite similar. But even within these countries, women do at least 20 per cent more of unpaid work than men. As for the gender pay gap, there are considerable differences between EU countries: from less than 5% in Luxembourg, Italy and Romania to more than 19% in Austria, Germany, Latvia and Estonia. However, a lower gender pay gap is often seen in countries with a lower employment rate of women.

Until now, EU equality engagements and programmes have not contributed much to deal with gender-based discrimination in the Member States. Gender equality issues even suffered a backlash due to the financial crisis of 2008. One of the most recent proposals is the Work-life Balance Initiative, on the basis of the European Pillar of Social Rights. It addresses the challenges faced by carers and encourages a better sharing of responsibilities between women and men. The Work-life Balance Directive introduces family and parental leave schemes, care arrangements, and the development of a working environment that facilitates the conciliation of work, family and private life for women and men. It also extends the right to request flexible working arrangements to all working parents of children up to at least 8 years old, and all careers. The legislative proposal is complemented by a set of non-legislative measures, which include ensuring protection against discrimination and dismissal for parents and careers and making a better use of European funds to improve provision of formal care services (childcare and long-term care). These measures, if implemented, would be a positive step to relieve the consequences of the pandemic on women. The Directive entered into force in 2019, so the Member States have until August 2022 to implement the measures within it.

Moreover, the EU has adopted an ambitious 2021-2027 budget, and an extra 750€ billion of Next Generation EU funding for the socio-economic recovery of the Member States. In March 2020, the European Commission released a new EU gender equality strategy for 2020 to 2025, which sets out measures in areas spotlighted by the pandemic. It ensures equal participation and opportunities in the labour market and achieving gender balance in decision-making and politics, including measures on equal pay, gender-equal parenting and care and protection against gender-based violence. 

In sum, the European Union has acknowledged the different impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and is progressively taking action on the matter through diverse policy initiatives, which is positive. We will have to wait to see the effect of this initiative once implemented in the Member States. However, full gender equality is far from being achieved, and the care crisis has a long-term impact that will not be easily palliated. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation and has created an urgent need for conciliation policies and work-life balance measures within the Member States. Therefore, further and binding measures are needed, both at a European and a national level, to progressively balance care work and to promote effective gender equality in the EU.

[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]

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