Covid-19: Is There a Bigger Blessing for Gender Equality to Come from This Curse?

By Sophia Obrecht

The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women in terms of job loses, risk of domestic violence, and increased unpaid labour at home. But, despite these challenges has the collision of domestic and public spheres finally shone a light on the unfair double burden women have carried since the fight for equality began?

Think back to March 2020 and the first national lockdowns to hit Europe are already in place in countries like Italy and Spain. Working from home is declared the “new normal”, and children are sent home from school. Perhaps naively and prematurely activists and think tanks for gender equality began to speculate that remote work and even the pandemic could be good for working women. After all, in two parent households both Mum and Dad would be at home to share the burden of housework and childcare that, yes, even in the 21st century remains a burden for mothers rather than fathers.

The reality of Covid and the “Double Burden”.

Fast-forward a couple of months and reality, fueled by centuries of the same old gender roles and expectations, hits.

Despite the fact that fathers are at home to help, this changes very little about the balance of responsibility and the proportion of unpaid work that men and women take on in the domestic sphere. According to the UN Study The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics, on average women around the world spend three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work as men a day. In Northern Africa and Western Asia this figure jumps up to seven times as many hours. In general, that’s an average of twenty-one hours a week, the equivalent to half a working week in most European nations.

Many argue that the pandemic has worsened this already unequal distribution of unpaid domestic and care work, in part due to the absence of external child-care possibilities. For months schools and kindergartens were or remain closed, and any other possibilities for grandparents and babysitters to visit were ruled out due to social distancing measures. So, who was left to take on this proportion of the childcare?

Yes, you guessed it mothers.

But why in a period which some have deemed post-feminist, at least in European and Western spheres, is gender inequality and more specifically the unfair distribution of unpaid domestic work still such a prevalent issue? I mean, aren’t the fathers of today millennial men brought up in an era where mothers went to work and where fathers contributed to household chores? Is this not the generation of liberal avocado eating hipsters, are these not the modern men feminists have been waiting for?

Why are women suffering from the increased burden of unpaid work during the pandemic?

The most logical, pragmatic, and perhaps frustrating fact is that men still tend to be the biggest earners in their relationships, especially if their partner has taken time off to have children and therefore interrupted her career progression. And so, when push comes to shove the main breadwinner must have the space to be successful and secure in their employment. But what does this mean for working women during the pandemic?

Picture this, it’s lockdown and both you and your partner are working from home. This afternoon each of you has an important meeting scheduled for the same time but someone has to watch the kids who are too young to be left alone. Whose meeting should take priority? Well, since your partner is the main breadwinner it’s important that they keep their job, so it looks like you have to take care the children while juggling your meeting. The likelihood that the main breadwinner is a man means that the woman must forsake her professional goals for the greater good of the family.

At its core the unfair distribution of unpaid domestic work comes down to centuries of gendered roles and traditions. Traditions that define women as the primary care giver and men as the main breadwinner. Perhaps too, it comes down women’s own expectations and learned behaviors which make us more likely to put the needs and wants of others before our own, instilled in girls the day they pick up their first baby doll toy.

This unequal distribution of unpaid labour effects women, not only in terms of energy and free time but also in their ability to perform at their best at work and indeed to push themselves forward into leadership positions. Especially now during the pandemic with the added childcare responsibilities there is a possibility that women will be less likely to put themselves forward for special projects, or that their output may suffer due to increased responsibilities outside of their work life.

But the pandemic has also disproportionally affected women in many other ways. Women make up over 70% of workers in the health sector and therefore face a much higher risk of infection than men when they go to work. Added to this, because women tend to make up a greater proportion of the workforce in the service sector, or are more likely to work part time they are more likely to be affected by Covid related unemployment.

And then there is the rise in domestic violence catalyzed by the pandemic: Around one third of women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner, 18% have experienced such violence in 2020 according to the UN.

So, is Covid a curse for gender equality with no blessing in sight?

There are those who believe that the Covid pandemic will set the equal rights movement back by approx. a decade because not only will less women be in places of work, their career ambitions may be marred by these newly fixed associations with the home.

However, I do think the suffering of women during the Covid pandemic will not go unnoticed and will not be sustained in the long term. In fact, I believe that the greater visibility for the unpaid work that women do at home can only be a good thing. Whether it is a father who was never home before 8pm or the boss that couldn’t understand the difficulties of having young children, the merging of home and work has meant that family and work spheres have become more intertwined than ever. Individuals previously unaware of the extra work their partner has to do in their absence now see the full scale of work their significant other must take on.  

Fathers are also enjoying being home more regularly and taking on some of the childcare. One study has shown that over a third of fathers are cooking more and over a quarter are spending more time on laundry and cleaning, signaling a move to greater equality in the domestic sphere. It might just be that Coivd is the catalyst to shift gender roles in the direction of equilibrium, where fathers, safe in the knowledge that remote work and remote success are possible, are less reluctant to stay at home. Similarly, perhaps when things get back to normal and external childcare is back to its pre-Covid levels working women will also benefit from the flexibility of remote work which too might shift the proportion of women in part-time work to full-time work.

But before this can happen employers must make changes in order to facilitate a sustained move to gender equality in the workplace. This means giving fathers the option for longer paid parental leave or perhaps the option to work remotely for a longer period of time after the birth of a newborn child. In a post-Covid work environment many believe some form of hybrid working will become the norm and employers must prioritise working mothers in order to make it possible for them work remotely.

While Covid has proven a difficult time for all of us, but especially the working mothers of society, I do believe that there is a blessing to come from this challenging period. The collision of the domestic and public spheres has made inequality at home harder to ignore both in households and in wider society. Perhaps, when the disorienting dust of the pandemic has settled companies, government, and society will wake from their apathy towards women and their double burden.

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