A Few Considerations about the Gender Gap in the COVID-19 Impact on the Labour Market Economy Near Us (XXXIX)
March marks one year since Romania entered a state of emergency and remained on alert due to the pandemic. The Romanian state, like all of the states of Europe and the world, is still looking for solutions to limit its spread. The priority in the concerns of all governments remains health, but we cannot ignore the economic and social effects of the health crisis, and knowing that crises are seldom gender neutral when it comes to economic effects, this moment seems opportune for an analysis of the relationship between the health crisis and gender equality and its long-term consequences.
The questions that seem relevant are:
- to what level has the pandemic revealed pre-existing gender inequalities?
- who is vulnerable and exposed to suffering?
- what can be the long-term consequences? and
- what can be done now for the future?
This brief analysis, given the economics of the paper, will be limited to a broad and general approach in the European space, taking into account the gender perspective, without disregarding in any way the possible impact in the crisis, as well as the right to equal treatment of any person, from an economic and social perspective.
The paper does not represent a firm position of the author, based on a final scientific research, but rather an opening for a list of issues of reflection or action that can be considered by each individual to the extent of their own interest and ability, as well as the state through public policies.
Gender inequalities pre- crisis, particularly in the labour market
The history and evidence of economic crises throughout history show that the impact of these crises has always been felt differently by women and men, especially when we consider the labour market, highlighting the higher share of men in job losses. Women have made significant progress in the labour market in recent decades, both in terms of positions, in terms of decision-making power, and in terms of income from work. Thus, in 2019, at the level of the European Union, the employment rate among women had reached 67.2% according to official EUROSTAT statistics, while among men it was 78.9% (reference to the population aged 24 to 64 years). The reduction of the employment gap between women and men was not felt as strongly by each state, in Romania the employment rate indicator remained lower among women by 19 percentage points compared to men.
The relatively slow pace of progress means that reducing the gap remains one of the key objectives of the European Union's new (2020- 2025) Gender Equality Strategy, with the conscious assumption of costs, both in terms of women's efforts to win equal rights with men and in terms of state budgets allocated to closing the gender gap.
Considering this as a proof in itself of the recognition of the existence of gender inequalities, we can highlight mainly three aspects marked by inequality between women and men prior to the health crisis, respectively in 2019:
- The “feminization” of certain fields of activity reflects the jobs occupied mainly by women, respectively those in the fields of health (especially at the level of nurse) and education (especially preschool education), social assistance, trade (especially retail), textile industry, but also certain types of services for people or households (care services, cleaning services, food preparation services), as well as the field of hospitality, tourist services and accommodation. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has conducted and published systematic studies, showing that 76% of employees in the EU healthcare system are women, and 82% of supermarket cashier positions are also held by women, prior to the pandemic.
- The level of income obtained by women when working in the same positions as men, even without going further into the past. As recently as 2019, Evelyn Regner, chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality, said: "Women work in the same positions as men and earn, on average, 16% less". The debate can be deepened in relation to access to established positions held by men, and to managerial, governmental or decision-making positions, constant concerns in the work of groups and organizations fighting for the protection of women's rights.
- Work-life balance or professional life vs. personal life
Before the crisis, there was a greater involvement of men in taking on parental responsibilities for the care and education of children, as well as housework, but nevertheless women mainly take on this extra work, spending an average of 39 hours a week with children and 17 hours a week cooking, compared to 21 hours allocated by men to children and 10 hours for household chores, as shown by the European Quality of Life Survey. In order to better manage the time budget, many mothers with children, especially with young children, have chosen to work remotely through teleworking or a form of entrepreneurship such as self-employed or freelancing, possibly on long-term projects, with predetermined employment time and part-time work, which led to a flexibility in the daily work schedule, and the work-life balance seemed to improve. At the level of the labour market, it could be considered a positive development, but it must be borne in mind that most of the time spent working from home was spent alone, either due to the lack of a life partner or due to its overlap in working time, which was away from home.
From a social point of view, it could be seen that women create their own “world”, either around children or around professional concerns that resulted in atypical forms of work or employment contracts with the limitation of relationships around these two poles, protecting in this way the couple's relationship, when it exists, or offering itself moments of rest and relaxation.
Vulnerability and exposure to COVID-19
This prolonged health crisis, in particular through its economic and social effects, brings the unfortunate prospect of nullifying the progress made in reducing the gender gap mentioned in the previous paragraph.
- With regard to the workplace, it is sufficient to note that the quarantine measures meant a lockdown precisely of the activities (except those relating to health) in which the female labour force predominated, their jobs being the most affected, the measures making it difficult to maintain employment contracts or other types of commitments agreed prior to the onset of the pandemic.
With regard to the female workforce employed in health or education systems, job retention is accompanied by an increased risk of being infected with the virus and with fears and concerns about one's health or that of the family. Workers in personal care and assistance services or domestic services for other people's households are also at greater risk of infection through unavoidable contact with those to whom they provide services.
There is a special category, exposed to suffering from the effects of the pandemic, namely that of migrant women, women who combine different forms of discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, or who have become vulnerable of their own initiative (single mothers, women with disabilities, elderly women abandoned by families or institutionalized alone).
- From an economic perspective, estimates by international bodies, experts and researchers in the economy of this crisis show that extreme poverty will increase to the level of about 100 million people, of which 47 million women will be in poverty, caused by the pandemic.
- Balancing their work with additional responsibilities for the home and children is complicated by the closure of schools and traffic restrictions. Working at home with the schooling of children at home, as well as working at the home of male partners, when they exist, brings to the fore the unequal division of tasks and the lack of appreciation of the value of this work, along with additional efforts to manage living space, more mouths to feed throughout the day.
The comfort of home, the physical and mental security of the home are gradually being replaced by conflicts, which can escalate to domestic violence. Mental health is impaired by stress and depression, and the quality of partnerships is also poor and can often be a source of suffering, with some women being subjected to aggression and rape, even forced to flee and seek institutional refuge, where exposure also increases the risk of infection. A consequence of the imbalance and the increase of personal discomfort can have a direct or indirect effect on women and children through the abuse of alcohol or other toxic substances. One of the worst consequences of this situation is the increase in maternal and infant mortality.
A number of other internal and external factors influencing gender differences could intervene, as well as a number of variables that act on the economic and social context could influence the model of analysis of gender gaps and discrimination.
Long-term anticipated consequences for the pandemic
- The economic outlook
Due to the prolonged crisis and protracted urgency and alert conditions, the exact extent of the decline / contraction of the European economy is not yet known. Hesitation in expanding measures to isolate the population and the economy, tightening measures in resilience and economic recovery programs make it difficult to estimate the economic impact of the crisis and, in the long run, the estimate of the distribution of job losses, reduction of employment, income level both in the fields of the male-dominated economy, as well as that already devoted to women. It could be anticipated that the direct and indirect effects will be more pronounced on women with long-term, negative consequences, and their effort to adapt must be proportional/ consistent.
- The social outlook
Women will be subjected to more radical changes in lifestyle, especially affecting the appreciation of life and the expenditure of spare time.
The limitation of some rights and freedoms, through social distancing and masking, fuels frustrations, destroys social barriers and respect for oneself and others, involving the inability to proactively adapt, demanding obedience and conformity only from others, and hence the diversification of forms of violence, from street harassment to bullying at work, to domestic violence including possible violence directed towards children (especially of young girls) and phenomena such as cyberbullying.
Intentions and proposals for action
It is imperative that governments do not ignore the impact of the crisis on our lives, including differential gender manifestations.
When we refer to women, it is necessary to take into account the long-term effects reflected on the next generation through the indirect impact on their children’s future.
A major and transformative change would be the involvement of women in decision-making on preparing for the crisis, the response and the recovery. This would impose a change of mentality on the part of men and a genuine casting of the rights they have been advocating for so long.
Setting gender goals and implementing gender equality in crisis resolution and economic recovery packages will contribute to the new inclusive, resilient, sustainable and ethical society.
Of course, a deeper, substantiated, interdisciplinary analysis is required, this work paper only a warning signal can be considered. A constraint on the issue is the complete ignorance of the needs differentiated by gender, given that even at this time there is not enough data disaggregated by factors of influence and gender. Most of the time, despite the multitude of approaches, the real problems and needs of gender conciliation remain invisible.
Men account for a greater share of infection and disease cases and have a higher mortality rate, but women's vulnerability to economic and social suffering is deeper and has a greater impact on the next generation.
Restrictions on freedoms, isolation and loneliness are accompanied by worsening physical and mental health.
Many questions remain unanswered at this time because such a long duration of the pandemic has not been foreseen, while no measures are taken to collect and analyze statistical data by gender, necessary for a quantitative quality analysis.
Eurofound (2020c), Living, working and COVID-19, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, http://eurofound.link/ef20059.
European Commission (2020a), European economic forecast, summer 2020 (Interim), European Economy Institutional Paper 132, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. European Commission (2020b), A union of equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025, COM(2020)152 final, Brussels.
Eurostat, Unemployment Statistics.
International Labour Organization, “COVID-19 and the World of Work.”
Labour force survey, September 2020. (2020, October 9)