Recent studies have confirmed that this pandemic is impacting female economic progress at a higher rate across continents. Experts are warning that if the current trajectory continues, the consequences won’t be confined to the reversion of equal gender representation. They’re cautioning that global GDP growth will suffer a destructive loss and sustainable recovery from the pandemic will be at greater risk.
Following Rapid Gender assessment surveys conducted across 50 countries, UN Women Deputy Director Anita Bhatia stated that 25 years of gender equality progress could be lost in just one year due to the COVID-19 crisis. The International Monetary Fund, McKinsey Global Institute and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have echoed this opinion based on their report findings.
Systemic gender roles under the spotlight
The COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying many global issues as society has been forced to adapt to a narrowed set of conditions. Gender equality is such an obstacle under this intensified spotlight. To investigate why female economic progress is damaged more by disaster, systemic gender roles embedded within society must be examined.
The International Labour Organization estimated that before the pandemic, unpaid domestic labor and care hours performed globally were 16 billion per day, and 75% of these hours were conducted by women. The International Monetary Fund has measured a global average of 2.7 additional domestic labor hours per day since the onset of this crisis.
The drop in female employment and increase in domestic labor hours underscore a wider problem that’s simply been deepened by the pandemic - domestic work is still gendered, and the labor division isn’t equal. Despite the rise in gender equality awareness and legislation to protect against gender discrimination, traditional roles in the home are proving more resistant to change.
Unpaid domestic labor, sometimes described as the care or reproductive economy is unacknowledged by governments in any official economic capacity. However, it’s uniformly recognized as a fundamental necessity for the function of society and the reproduction of the generational labor pool. As barriers to career success have diminished for women, domestic labor expectations and recognition within the family, from employers and at a leadership level haven’t adapted at a corresponding rate. Managing a home and family is routinely undervalued, yet the cost for women is physical, mental, emotional and unequally distributed.
The ‘have it all’ hypocrisy
Female employment has risen over the last few decades through progress providing more opportunities whether women work through choice or necessity. Women currently represent 39% of the global workforce and unlike the societal barriers present during the last global flu pandemic in the 20th century, marriage and children are no longer considered roadblocks to achieving professional success. Yet traditional gender roles are still a pressure and obstacle to both employment and wellbeing.
Equality campaigners were raising the issue of unequal domestic responsibilities long before the pandemic intensified the issue. Women now have the deserved freedom to pursue their career goals, yet unequal attribution of domestic responsibilities. This creates an untenable balancing act between work and family life that’s a recipe for burnout. Society triumphs that women can have it all, whilst concurrently expecting them to do it all.
COVID-19 lockdowns have required many families to integrate the care needs of elderly relatives into their routines, and parents are overseeing the homeschooling of children whilst simultaneously working from home. According to a UK survey conducted by the Institute For Fiscal Studies, mothers are experiencing a greater burden. Working mother’s paid hours have dropped by 20% and these hours are seeing a higher level of interruption by domestic duty, 47% compared to 30% of father’s paid hours. This study also found that fathers who’ve experienced furlough or job loss aren’t performing a majority of the domestic labor duties when the mother is still working.
For female entrepreneurs, this represents a loss in the time spent on developing their businesses or the production of crafted wares. Space within the home designated for this enterprise may have been commandeered by their partner working from home, and technology repurposed for children’s virtual lessons. The 17% difference between paid work interruption suggests women are taking more of the homeschooling supervision responsibilities.
Industry and cultural divisions during a pandemic
The debate on whether gendered industry division is due to embedded gender norms swaying choice or the genetic predispositions of the sexes lacks viably objective research. However, this division has proven problematic during a global health disaster. Women represent large numbers in many of the sectors significantly impaired by lockdown closures, such as retail, travel, food service, beauty, education and the arts. The McKinsey report states that 54% of global job loss from COVID has been female, despite women representing a lower number of global jobs.
COVID-19’s impact on employment is having a greater effect on women of color and female immigrants. These women face the intersecting issues of systemic racial bias, subsequently lower-paid work, a large presence in roles affected by lockdown and sectors involving work that cannot be conducted virtually from home. In the United States, 27% of white men have reported financial insecurity of job loss, compared to 54% of black women.
In developing nations gender discrimination was already more prevalent due to cultural norms and religious practices. Attitudes towards female employment and career opportunities are less liberal and women are more likely to be expected to prioritize domestic labor and sacrifice employment goals during a health crisis such as this. Female mortality has also measured higher during epidemics as women take on care and health worker roles and care for infected family members.
Action for social and economic crisis prevention
The conclusion formed by all of these major organizations is that female economic regression seen on a global scale will have severe repercussions if reform isn’t implemented at a leadership level. Workforce diversity has proven to improve economic growth, and McKinsey estimates the global GDP growth by 2030 will be $1 trillion lower if these trends in female employment continue.
The experts are suggesting revisions to government policies that recognize the economic value of unpaid domestic labor and support those performing it. They advise subsidizing childcare, employment protections, income support and developing educational infrastructure will aid post-pandemic economic recovery and avert further financial crisis.
COVID-19 has highlighted that gender discrimination isn’t just an issue for women, but an issue that impacts society as a whole. Gender narratives must be reformed from within families, businesses, and at a leadership level because the current structures imposed are impacting mental health and the health of the economy.