The Covid-19 pandemic has added pressure to a range of society’s issues due to the specific set of circumstances the world has been forced to adapt to. Women’s rights are such an issue experiencing these heightened impacts.
The topic of gender equality is often viewed as a female problem only impacting women experiencing systemic sexism and misogyny. The reality is that when equality is lacking, society as a whole suffers.
Women represent 39% of global jobs, yet a 2020 report conducted by McKinsey measured that 54% of pandemic job loss has been female. Experts in the field of gender equality have expressed concerns regarding the impact on female economic development. Following Rapid Gender Assessment Surveys conducted across 50 countries, UN Women Deputy Director Anita Bhatia outlined the risk that 25 years of progress could be lost within just one year. Other studies performed by the International Monetary Fund, The Institute Of Fiscal Studies, and The Centre For American Progress have shared corresponding warnings based on their collected data.
To investigate why female employment is at greater risk, women’s roles in society must be examined. Unlike the last global flu virus of the early 20th century, the barriers preventing women from achieving career success are fewer. Yet despite the rise in female employment and the introduction of legislation to protect equality in many countries, women’s economic progress is currently subject to similar threats that existed 100 years ago.
The various studies all found that women’s employment has been hit harder than men’s employment due to the increased domestic duties the pandemic has created. Unequal domestic labour division is not a new phenomenon. It is estimated that before 2020 unpaid care and domestic labour accounted for 16 billion hours a day globally. Pre-pandemic studies showed that 75% of these labour hours were performed by women. Since the worldwide spread of covid-19, The International Monetary Fund has measured a global average of 2.7 additional domestic labour hours per day.
These figures underscore a wider problem that has simply been intensified by the pandemic – traditional gender roles are still a pressure and obstacle to both employment and wellbeing. Although women now have the freedom to pursue their career goals, unequal domestic labour attribution creates an impossible balancing act between work and family. Higher societal expectations for mothers to parent exceptionally, especially if they work, adds to this recipe for burnout. Women are told they can ‘have it all’, but what this really translates to is the assumption they will also ‘do’ it all.
Covid lockdowns have required many families to oversee the homeschooling of children and absorb the care of vulnerable elderly relatives. Working parents are conducting these tasks whilst also working from home in many cases. A UK survey conducted by the Institute For Fiscal Studies found that mothers are experiencing a greater burden. The paid hours of working mothers are seeing a higher level of interruption from domestic responsibility, 47% compared to the 30% experienced by fathers. This has caused a 20% drop in female productivity. The study also found that in cases where fathers have been furloughed or lost their jobs, they have not taken on the majority of domestic duties when the mother is still working.
These impacts are affecting women of colour and immigrants in a greater number. This is due to the intersecting issues of entrenched racial discrimination, high participation in many sectors subject to lockdown, and statistically lower rates of pay. In the United States, 54% of black women have reported financial hardship and job loss due to covid, compared to only 27% of white men.
In many developing nations, cultural and religious practices have slowed women’s economic progress towards equality. The expectation to prioritise domestic work over a career is stronger on a societal level. In addition to this, female mortality rates in these areas tend to be higher during a health crisis as women take on health worker roles and care for infected family members when medical facilities and PPE are not available.
Domestic labour is a vital requirement for the function of society and the reproduction of the generational labour pool. Yet it is unrecognised by many governments, unmeasured in economic terms and treated as a constant and renewable resource. This contrasts with data proving that workplace diversity correlates strongly with financial success and rapid growth. McKinsey has estimated that the global GDP loss will be $1 trillion lower if these regressive trends continue.
Each of these expert studies warns that the invisible labour performed by women must now be recognised at a government level to influence positive change to societal attitudes and create policies to protect female economic growth. Historically, natural disasters and health crisis’ have regressed women’s economic development in the affected area for years beyond the event. But the Covid-19 pandemic is not happening in one isolated country, it is a global event with potentially catastrophic consequences.