Feminism

The pandemic has revealed the fragility of gains in gender equality

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This piece is part of a series exploring 2021’s International Women’s Day theme #ChooseToChallenge. Pieces from Backbench’s editors represent their personal views and not those of Backbench itself. If you would like to get in touch regarding the series or add a contribution, please email editor@bbench.co.uk.

In seems significant that this year’s International Women’s Day falls on the same day children across England return to school. After more than two months at home, parents nationwide will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. No more home-schooling – at least if the prime minister’s roadmap goes to plan.

But it’s women who have done the lion’s share of childcare and housework since the pandemic began. Despite major advances in gender equality in recent decades, women are still the primary caregivers and homemakers. Even those in full-time work do a greater proportion of unpaid labour.

The pandemic has only worsened this disparity, revealing how fragile gains in gender equality are. Despite record numbers of women in the workforce, improved legal protections and changing attitudes, gender roles remain. And in times of crisis, it’s all too easy to fall back into them.

A global problem

Before the pandemic, UN estimates suggest women were doing three quarters of total unpaid work globally. That means for every one hour of unpaid work by a man, a woman did three.

Since the pandemic, that figure has at least doubled, according to UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia.

She warned that the disproportionate care burden on women poses a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”.

“Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found in February that two thirds of UK women said they were taking charge of their children’s education at home. In research by the TUC, 90% of women surveyed had experienced increased anxiety and stress during the latest lockdown.

The problem is international: UN data from 38 countries shows that women are consistently doing the lion’s share of unpaid work. Simultaneously, parents are getting more help at home from daughters than sons.

Women’s work

It’s not just women’s mental health being affected by the pandemic – their careers and job prospects are suffering too.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), UK mothers are 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs over the course of the pandemic.

Women were also one third more likely to work in an industry closed during lockdown.

In December, women accounted for all 156,000 jobs lost in the United States. Men gained 14,000 jobs.

In Latin America, more than double the number of women than men are out of work.

Even those who were able to stay in work will likely suffer consequences for their future job prospects. Research from August 2020 by academics at University College London and Bristol University revealed the struggle faced by working mothers.

“The additional hours of childcare done by women are less sensitive to their employment than they are for men, leaving many women juggling work and (a lot more) childcare, with likely adverse effects on their mental health and future careers,” it said.

It’s long been known that having more women in the workforce is better not only for gender equality, but for the economy too. Expert analysis suggests women dropping out of the workforce during the pandemic could cost global GDP $1 trillion.

Unsafe at home

While people across the world stayed home last year to keep safe from COVID, thousands of women were trapped with their abusers. The global increase in domestic violence is yet another example of the pandemic’s gendered impact.

The National Domestic Abuse helpline said in November they had seen as upward trend in the numbers of women seeking help. In the first UK lockdown, they received more than 40,000 calls were made in three months.

Women’s NGOs are also warning that lockdown has given rise to new forms of abuse. The charity Refuge, which runs the National Domestic Abuse helpline, says more perpetrators are now using webcams, social media and even revenge porn.

In France, the committee on women’s rights for the French National Assembly is seeking to outlaw so-called ‘economic violence’. The term refers to control or abuse of a victim’s finances so as to limit their financial autonomy. Already, research by French women’s NGOs suggests 23% of domestic violence victims experience economic abuse.

As thousands of women are forced out of the workforce, women are only becoming more vulnerable to this kind of abuse.

Failure of leadership?

In the UK, a report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that government policy in response to the pandemic made gender inequality worse.

The design of the furlough scheme, it said, “overlooked – and in some respects continues to overlook – the specific and well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women”.

“Investment plans that are skewed towards male-dominated sectors have the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women, exacerbating existing inequalities.”

Globally, the UN say that despite the unprecedented measures taken by governments during this crisis, “the bulk of responses have been blind to women’s needs”.

But the pandemic may have hinted at the route to a more equitable future. Research suggests allowing more flexibility to manage unpaid work will help keep women in employment. And despite continued disparities, men have been doing more domestic work, a key part of addressing disparities in unpaid labour.

In our healthcare system and at home, women’s contribution has been fundamental during the pandemic. Changes to the way we work and live have revealed the often-invisible labour of women.

But now, political action is vital to avoid women’s rights becoming another victim of the virus. Our fragile progress towards gender parity risks crumbling without it.

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