The “essential workers”, the real “heroes” of the Corona Crisis, have been applauded around the world. Over two thirds of the health care work force in OECD countries are female. Yet it seems that working women still do not have the same standing in society as men. And they are more severely affected by the medium- and long-term consequences of the pandemic. Are we experiencing a serious setback in the fight for gender equality?
Asked about the impact of the crisis on women, Member of the European Parliament Alexandra Geese (Greens/EFA) says: “The statistics by Eurostat show that five times more women than men have already lost their jobs in March.” The German MEP explained Eyes on Europe why she believes this is the case: “Many women work in customer-oriented sectors such as retail. More women are employed in precarious and part-time jobs, while they also do most of the additional unpaid work at home during the crisis.” This not only puts them at an economic disadvantage, but also leaves them with little time to participate in public debate, according to Geese.
Yet women’s rights deserve to be at the forefront of public debate as they risk being infringed upon more than before the crisis. Abortion opponents in countries such as the USA and Poland have used the pandemic as a pretext to push for a more restricted access to abortions. Moreover, women around the world have particularly suffered from domestic violence under lockdown.
The Corona Crisis risks exacerbating structural injustice, which has persisted to this day despite significant progress on gender equality. Even though women make up over half of the population, they are still not represented appropriately in most European countries’ institutions. For instance, the largest party in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has a 75 percent share of male members (who are on average 62 years old). Even the suggested minimal compromise of a 33% quota for women failed at the last party conference – despite the fact that this is the party of Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, two of the most powerful women in the world. Overall, 195 out of 246 members of parliament are men in the German Bundestag.
With 31 percent women in Parliament, Germany is doing worse in terms of equal representation than most west and north European countries but still better than countries like Poland (29%) and Romania (21%).
Romania, however, has the lowest gender pay gap in the EU: only 3 percent, compared to an EU average of 14.8 percent. The gender pay gap measures the difference between average gross hourly earnings of male and female employees. It seems clear that the gender misrepresentation – by the way, not only in politics but also in companies’ executive boards and other powerful positions of society – translates into persisting economic and social discrepancies between men and women. Therefore, the fact that women tend to do more care work at home during the pandemic stems not only from cultural norms but also from structural inequality on the job market.
The Corona crisis fuels this inequality, letting “traditional” gender roles re-emerge. In Germany, 20 percent of women have recently cut their working hours – considerably more than men, according to a recent study. The head researcher of the said study, Professor Jutta Allmendinger, warns of an “awful re-traditionalization.” The alarming trend is not that parents step in for closed schools and kindergartens but the fact that significantly fewer men do so than women, she states.
In France, the situation is similar. Studies show that before the crisis, 70% of French women oversaw their kids’ homework, and 70% of household chores were done by women. At the global level, women carry out up to ten times more care work than men, according to OECD statistics. And it seems that the stay-at-home orders across Europe exacerbated the gender imbalance rather than reducing it.
At the same time, women face a higher risk of being laid off by their employers. In Spain, for example, 29% of women (vs. 21% of men) work in jobs that were required to shut down during the lockdown – mostly jobs requiring social interaction such as in the gastronomic sector.
Among women who do have a job, working mothers are among the groups facing the most significant challenges during the Corona Crisis as they are expected to reconcile work and childcare. Especially for single parents, this has proven mission impossible. In Spain, 86% of them are women. An EU-wide studyfrom 2015 found that 16 percent of children live in single-mother homes whereas only 2.1 percent live in single-father homes.
The persisting inequality between men and women has many different facets across societies of the most developed countries. In the academic world, a trend has been observed by editors of different scientific journals: When men are forced to work from home, they tend to submit more papers while the opposite seems to be the case for their female colleagues. Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noted that submissions by women plummeted to an unprecedented extent – she had “never seen anything like it.” Another journal, Comparative Political Studies, said it received the same amount of paper by female authors as last year but experienced a 50 percent increase in submissions by men, as “The Lily” reported.
To overcome gender inequalities on all levels, short-term measures such as supporting single parents and families financially need to be accompanied by a long-term approach. “Economic and social policy measures must be embedded in broader efforts to mainstream gender in governments’ responses to the crisis,” an OECD paper suggests.
MEP Alexandra Geese therefore launched a petition called “Half of it,” which urges the European Commission and the European Council “to make sure that at least half of the volume of the Recovery and Resilience Instrument is spent on women’s jobs and the advancement of women’s rights.” The petition demands that investments should particularly be done in the care economy to “develop resilient childcare services and schools that allow all parents to maintain paid jobs and a healthy life balance.” It suggests a “Care Deal for Europe” and a new calculation of GDP that takes into account unpaid work.
Whereas the petition has not gotten more than a few thousand signatures after about two weeks, its suggested paradigm shift might sound appealing to some – and utopian to others. But whether one looks from an economist or a feminist perspective, a setback in the 1950s is not an option. Therefore, awareness about gender inequalities needs to transcend from economic and political institutions to the men, women, and people across society. Eventually, it is up to them in their daily lives to work on a more inclusive and democratic post-Corona future.
Frederic Göldner is a second-year master student at the ULB’s Institute for European Studies and co-editor-in-chief of Eyes on Europe