Updated: Aug 19, 2020
As COVID-19 continues to affect lives and livelihoods around the world, we have witnessed the economic consequences of the pandemic having a regressive effect on gender equality. This article will be discussing whether the pandemic could be a catalyst for gender equality, or have the inverse effect of diminishing the cause of equal pay and gender responsibilities regarding family and work.
Research has shown that women in the western world generally split household bills equally with their partners and take on the majority of domestic chores, in addition to being primary caregivers. As a result of the pandemic, with schooling being halted, this has consequently left women demotivated and behind on their own business initiatives.At the beginning of the pandemic, working from home potentially meant domestic responsibilities would be split more equally between couples. Studies of working parents’ lives during Covid-19 have shown that a disproportionate share of the burden is actually falling on women. In Australia, the provisional results of a survey by the University of Melbourne suggest that in households with children, parents are putting in an extra six hours a day of supervision, with women taking on more than two-thirds of the extra time. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Covid-19 has the potential to be a catastrophe for equality.
Moreover, it seems income is a key factor in exploring how pervasive this dual expectation truly is. Scientists from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich during March and April this year showed that working women in the UK, Germany and the US did more childcare across all wage brackets, compared to men with similar earnings. With this in mind, it seems that with the burden of familial responsibilities taken on by women being exacerbated across the spectrum, this will only make it harder to dismantle, and could only be truly addressed with a vaccine and greater economic stability.
Research has also shown women are often the ones to give up their jobs due to having lower salaries. For instance, in the EU, women earn an average 16% less an hour than men, while the figure rises to 18% in the US. Women are also more likely to work part-time, largely due to existing family responsibilities.
This research tells us that, although the pressures of the pandemic have forced women to perform paradigmatic traditional roles at home, modernity and the demands of society asks them to undertake a financial role too in the running of the household. This dual expectation often leads to complications for equality. Campaign groups such as ‘Pregnant then Screwed’ have drawn attention to issues regarding maternity leave, particularly in the lead-up to the crisis. The group has focused its efforts on the lack of financial support packages awarded to self-employed mothers. With packages for self-employed workers based on average profits per year, this means that periods of maternity leave have largely been dismissed or disregarded. Therefore, with the pandemic seeming to aggravate existing structural flaws, this period should instead be used to resolve these inherent difficulties to order to make unemployment an issue of personal choice, as opposed to a decision forced upon due to a lack of government support.
There are, however, indicators of hope for gender equality. Although women are still primarily discharging housework and childcare duties, there is evidence suggesting that men, at least in the West, have increased their responsibilities since Covid-19 hit. This can largely be explored through unpublished research from academics at three Canadian universities, concluding that more than 40% of fathers said they were cooking more, while around 30% reported that they had improved the amount of time they spent on laundry and cleaning. More so, research from these universities also determined that chores within families had become more equally split.
There are signs businesses can potentially administer lessons from Covid-19 in order to implement factors that in turn, would foster a working environment that could catalyze the cause of gender equality. Flexibility, for instance, a notion that was not necessarily mainstream before the crisis, has now become pivotal. This will certainly improve how work can be done at home without the added restrictions on time spent commuting, and standard ‘clock-in’, ‘clock-out’ hours.
Clearly any discussions within the business community need to dovetail with greater government efforts to lay the foundation for equal opportunities within the labor market. Employment protection laws for those on zero-hour or very flexible contracts, and expanding parental leave opportunities for women as well as men is imperative in order to set the tone for a mutually beneficial work and home environment.
An increased level of debate surrounding existing inequalities is an important first step. This should clearly be accompanied at the micro intra-relationship level with ongoing discussions about gender assignment of roles.
For instance, researchers from the Boston Consulting Group, which surveyed more than 3,000 people in the US and Europe, found that working women spend an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labor than men.