The pandemic has added to the domestic care burden women face while putting predominantly female care workers under huge pressure.
Impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and the pandemic is no exception. Women are over-represented in the sectors hardest hit by the spread of the coronavirus, such as food service, retail and entertainment, and many have been forced to leave their paid jobs due to the increased pressure of unpaid care work. Unpaid care is notoriously unequally shared between men and women and, particularly where schools and preschools have been closed, many women have had to give up their paid occupation to fulfil the care needs of their families.
Measures to prevent the spread of the virus have thus disproportionately affected women’s employment opportunities and incomes. The general economic downturn caused by the pandemic, whose effects we are only beginning to feel, will also have more dire consequences for women than for men, as women already earned less and had fewer savings.
The crisis has widened the gender gap and will continue to do so, unless action is taken. Applying a gender lens to the economic impacts of the pandemic, what are the progressive proposals on how to mitigate the economic consequences of the crisis and fuel a gender-equal recovery? Which measures can help women and thus the economies to recover faster?
The pandemic has caused the largest drop in working hours in the EU-27 since 2006. In comparison with previous economic crises, it has hit highly female-dominated sectors. In addition, women tend to have more precarious positions in the labour market. For instance, even though women in the European Union are on average more highly educated than men, one third of employed women still have part-time contracts, compared with 8.2 per cent of their male counterparts.
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Women have been the first to leave the labour market, and they might be the last to rejoin it. At least this is what troubling evidence from last year suggests: according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), men gained more than twice as many jobs as women during the summer of 2020, when employment started to revive after the first wave of the pandemic.
It is imperative that the recovery works as well for women as for men—not least because the gender gap causes a huge economic loss. By improving equality between men and women in the EU, the EIGE contends, it would be possible to create 10.5 million new jobs by 2050, of which 70 per cent would be taken up by women. This would increase EU gross domestic product per capita by from 6.1 to 9.6 per cent.
According to EIGE data, before the pandemic women in the EU dedicated 18.4 hours per week to cooking and housework, compared with 12.1 hours for men. And according to the European Women’s Lobby, domestic care responsibilities were keeping 7.7 million women out of the labour market, compared with 450,000 men—leading to an estimated loss of €370 billion per year in Europe.
Now, across Europe, lockdowns and closures of workplaces and schools have increased the unpaid workload for women significantly. For instance, mothers have to a larger extent than fathers been involved in helping their children with distance learning. These additional care responsibilities for women have reduced their career progression and pay.
In Sweden, the government followed the advice of the Swedish Public Health Agency, which was adamant that elementary schools and schools for young people with disabilities should stay open during the pandemic. This did not only benefit socio-economically vulnerable children and children with other disadvantages but it also greatly benefited women, who could keep their paid jobs to a larger extent than elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, many women still lost income and career opportunities because they had to care disproportionately for their children when they had to quarantine or were sick, according to the Swedish Gender Equality Agency.
While many women were forced to work less or leave the labour market altogether during the pandemic—because of working in sectors hit by the downturn, increased care work or both—some women have had to work more than ever before. In all countries, women have risked their health and lives on the Covid-19 frontline, in jobs that expose workers to the virus, as domestic cleaners (95 per cent of whom are women), childcare workers (93 per cent) and cashiers (82 per cent).
Healthcare and long-term-care workers have been particularly exposed. Of the 49 million care workers in the EU, around 76 per cent are women.
A recently released report with findings from the eldercare sector and care-worker trade unions in nine European countries describes how the pandemic hit an underfinanced and understaffed sector. Years of austerity policies and neoliberal ‘new public management’ have led to more precarious working conditions and lower salaries in care.
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Already before the pandemic, chronic understaffing had left the sector struggling to fill vacancies and even hold on to staff. The work is often too physically and mentally exhausting to be manageable as full-time employment. With the pandemic, the workload went beyond the bearable. The mantra has been ‘stay home if you are sick’ but low salaries and lack of proper sick pay have forced many care workers to go to work even though they have had symptoms. In Sweden, care homes with Covid-19 outbreaks were found to have a higher proportion of staff paid by the hour.
During the pandemic, some women have had to quit their jobs, while others have had to work harder than ever. But the post-pandemic progressive challenge is the same for both: we must care more about care.
Both men and women must be able to combine having a career and a family, having a job and having kids, receiving a pay cheque and taking responsibility for the care needs of loved ones. Today, the unequally-shared care burden forces women to accept precarious working conditions, not least working part-time.
The professional care sector has to expand, raising the staff complement throughout—from childcare to long-term care for older people. If this does not happen, and if expansion does not keep up with the rapidly increasing care needs of ageing European societies, more and more women will be locked out of the labour market—fully or part-time—because of the pressure of unpaid care work.
But the new jobs which need to be created in care have to be jobs with decent pay and fair conditions. Today, the sector is dominated by low-paid, precarious part-time employment. This must end.
From Portugal to Finland, trade union activists have made a decisive difference during the pandemic, improving working conditions and protecting care workers, as well as the elderly. They have fought to ensure care workers have had adequate personal protective equipment, the right to sick pay and access to testing. Beyond dealing with the emergency, and fighting for the urgent needs of their members, trade unions have also campaigned for transformation of the care sector—into one that can offer its workers decent working conditions, adequate pay and respect.
In Sweden, it was a victory for the trade union Kommunal when temporary contracts were extended to at least 14 days of duration, so that employees on short-term contracts would be able to get sick pay. In the United Kingdom too, the right to sick pay became an important demand for trade unions. In Scotland, one crucial victory for unions early in the pandemic was agreement with the Scottish government and local-authority employers that the Scottish Living Wage would be paid to social-care workers immediately, substantially raising salaries.
In Spain, one of the key demands of the trade union movement has been to increase mandatory staffing levels by putting in place detailed requirements for each profession. In the UK, trade unions have campaigned to limit private-sector involvement in the eldercare sector. Several measures have been proposed, such as stricter regulation of private actors, ending contracts for failing services and more transparency. Trade unions have also proposed an ‘insourcing first policy’, as an essential step towards ending the for-profit funding model.
In Germany, the trade union federation Ver.di argues that the EU cannot afford to have underfunded and poorly equipped national health- and social-care systems. It should therefore support and co-ordinate national systems, to ensure equal access to quality care for all Europeans—not least by establishing minimum standards.
With the spotlight finally on the care sector—so essential for women’s economic emancipation and indeed for a gender-equal society—care workers and their trade unions have shown things can change. As Rebeca Solnit has so eloquently pointed out, one can look at this time of crisis ‘as akin to a spring thaw: it’s as if the pack ice has broken up, the water starts flowing again and boats can move through places they could not during winter’.
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.
Lisa Pelling is a political scientist and head of research at the Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé. She regularly contributes to the daily digital newspaper Dagens Arena and has a background as a political adviser and speechwriter at the Swedish foreign ministry. Linn Brolin is an intern at Arena Idé, completing a BA in political sciences at Lund University.