Coronavirus Could Set Gender Equality Back by 25 Years
Far from being an equaliser, terrible events tend to deepen divides and dig inequalities further. Those with the most privilege are better positioned to protect themselves from adverse events, while those who are struggling for survival even in normal times are left drowning. Coronavirus has been no exception.
Think of the Instagram stories of millionaires sharing their lockdown stories — trying to portray that just like the rest of us they were stuck in their homes, scared about the future and far from their loved ones. But rather than showing how much of an equaliser the pandemic was, these pictures revealed just how different our lives are. Lockdown in a mansion isn’t the same as lockdown in a pokey apartment, trying to work from home while your three kids are screaming at you.
Even though the virus itself may not discriminate by class, race or gender, its effects certainly did. This piece will look only at how women have paid a greater cost at the hands of the pandemic, and continue to do so.
Women are losing their livelihoods faster than men, domestic violence is on the rise, many are being laid off or forced to quit their jobs because they cannot arrange childcare while their kid’s schools are closed. All in all, the UN estimates that the pandemic could set gender equality back by a quarter of a century.
Economically, women are the first to pay the price
In the US, studies showed that women accounted for 100% of jobs lost in December. Women lost a total of 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. This can be explained by the fact that the sectors suffering the most — notably the hospitality sector — have a very women-dominated workforce. With bars and restaurants closes, women lost these jobs. This example is from the US, but worldwide, women are more likely to work in the informal sector, with less access to unemployment benefits. They work in service professions, those that have been closed by restrictions. All of this means that women’s livelihoods are the first at risk.
For too many women, home is not a safe place to be
Domestic violence increased worldwide during the Coronavirus lockdowns. Women in toxic relationships had no place to be other than at home, with their abuser. They were isolated from others and had no way of seeking help. Abusers turned the added pressures of the lockdown onto their partners. The UN described this issue as a “shadow pandemic” back in June last year. Cases of violence increased by 20%, they reported. In England and Wales, domestic abuse offences made up a fifth of all recorded crime during the first lockdown, reports BBC.
The burden of childcare falls upon women
With schools closed, parents had to work out how to juggle working and childcare. Either they were working from home and had to manage to keep kids entertained and quiet, or they were continuing to go to the office and had to arrange care from external carers, who were overbooked. And as usual, the mental burden of taking care of the practicalities of children fell on mothers in the majority of cases. This problem led to many women being forced to quit, or being laid off, because they had to prioritise child-care. A survey in the UK showed that half of the layoffs of women were linked to childcare issues. It also showed that “67% of key workers were forced to reduce their hours because of a lack of access to childcare, 60% struggled with childcare provision, and 45% did not have the childcare in place they needed over the summer.”
Women on the frontline
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of the health care workforce is women. While they have been risking their health to take care of people, they have also faced dire working conditions. Hospital wards are increasingly short-staffed, as employees showing symptoms are required to stay home. Procedures to prevent infection are also adding extra work to employees, and, while it is essential, it overloads workers who had little time to spare, to begin with. I spoke to a friend who works as in a hospital in Cork yesterday, she told me that everyone she knew appeared on the brink of a burnout. “I know things could be far worse. People are dying from this pandemic. But we are trying to keep them alive, and at times we just can’t handle it any more,” she told me.
2020 has ended and as the pandemic rages on, and restrictions continue to curtail our lives, it has become apparent that the problem wasn’t just the number of the year. Although the vaccine gives us some light at the end of the tunnel, a glimmer of hope that this will be over in a few months, we will still have to deal with the fallout of the past year. Fighting for gender equality will be a part of that.
That said, those who are used to struggling are also better equipped emotionally and psychologically to deal with adversity. Women are nothing if not resilient. And we will continue to fight for gender equality, as the world, slower, finds its balance in a “new normal.”