Gender inequality has been exposed and exacerbated throughout the pandemic. Though SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, regards men and women as equal (i.e. equally-suitable hosts for its mission to self-replicate), humanity’s efforts to hamper its spread have disadvantaged women more than men.
Prior to lockdown, there was a notable gap between the jobs men do and the jobs women do (to the frustration of gender activists, it has long been blamed as the source of all gender pay disparity – it’s not that simple!) As the pandemic throttles the job market, segregation-by-sex is coming back to bite us.
In the U.S. pre-lockdown, 24% of employed men worked in sectors that have now become ‘critical’ (e.g. policing, healthcare, farming) compared to 17% of employed women. Similarly, a greater share of employed men (28%) than employed women (22%) had jobs considered easily-transferable to remote working (e.g. business analysts or software engineers).
Critical workers, of particular value in a pandemic, and remote workers, who can do their job from any box with wifi, have weathered the storm of unemployment relatively well. They face relatively stable prospects too. They are mostly men.
Remaining sectors like services and retail, whose work-forces are disproportionately female, have come out at somewhat of a disadvantage. The mandatory closure of many commercial spaces – shops, bars, theatres and the like – has meant that female-dominated sectors have borne the brunt of job cuts. In the first few weeks of lockdown in the U.S., 1 in 5 women lost their jobs compared to 1 in 7 men; in the UK it was 1 in 6 women compared to fewer than 1 in 7 men.
An early survey from the UK Institute for Fiscal Studies reflects the impact this has had on families. They found that among families with opposite-gender parents, women were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or quit than men in the first month and a half of lockdown. Women had also been furloughed 14% more often than men. Although working men and women had seen the same change in average daily work (minus 1.4 hours), this represents a greater share of women’s work hours (22.2%) than men’s (16.7%) as women were more likely to be part-time workers to whom a drop in hours is more substantial.
Today’s furloughed are vulnerable to becoming tomorrow’s unemployed. And tomorrow’s unemployed are vulnerable to becoming unemployed the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that… The UK, the U.S.A, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and others have seen Real GDP decline by more than 10% points between 2019 Q4 and 2020 Q2, meaning a return to pre-lockdown activity – and pre-lockdown employment – is distant. Women may be out of jobs for a while.
Another factor which has taken its toll on women is childcare. Despite advances in our attitudes, many of us in the western world – whether consciously or unconsciously – fit our families to the ‘male breadwinner’ model: the husband labours to earn money, whilst the wife stays home and assumes childcare and household duties (in the UK in 2019, female employment was 8% points lower than male employment; meanwhile, in 9 out of 10 heterosexual couples, the woman does the bulk of the housework).
With schools, nurseries and day-cares all shutting due to the pandemic, many parents have picked up more hours of childcare responsibilities: their kids now need lunch as well as breakfast and dinner, and in many cases, parents have become de facto teachers on the side. Men have stepped up. The average father is spending double the amount of time with their kids compared with 2014/15. Yet they still lag behind women. According to the aforementioned survey, mothers are spending more time each day than fathers looking after their kids (2.3 hours more) and doing housework (1.7 hours more).
An imbalance in chores and in child-caring is an economic problem because slaving away at chores is an opportunity cost to women’s careers. Finding or developing a career in current conditions requires time and effort.
There remains a more immediate peril to women – domestic abuse, which in a normal year affects 8% of women. This is no normal year. Lockdown has cultivated several of the contributing factors to domestic violence: stresses are high due to job scarcity and health concerns; people are forced into confinement with their partners and there are fewer opportunities to seek help with communities locked down. Reports of domestic violence have thus surged by about 20% since lockdown began, which some charities believe is an underestimate (statistics rely on cases being reported, and not all are). Domestic violence hurts both genders, but women are twice as likely to be victims thereof.
Somewhat ironically, the virus is one of few things women can worry less about. Once infected with coronavirus, women are more likely to stave off the grave than men – a phenomenon reported by 63 of 70 countries with data on COVID-19 deaths by gender. In the UK, the death rate among men is 1.7 times higher than among women; the U.S.A (1.3), China (1.7), Spain (1.7), Greece (1.8), and Albania (2.2) report likewise. Men’s increased exposure to comorbidities (like cardiovascular disease and diabetes) and the higher rate of smoking and drinking among men are thought to be causative factors.
Our predicament is dangerous. The ejection of women from the labour market will cause scores to lose out on income and independence. Throwing children and chores in the mix, many will not have time to keep up their skills. We risk regressing decades in terms of gender equality in employment, and we risk seeing our national productivity slump. If these domestic violence trends continue (a possibility under lasting lockdown), we risk seeing more women beaten and killed.
Schools are tentatively planning to open their doors in the coming weeks. That’s a load off for mothers and serves as good news for children’s development. Governments should keep them open as a matter of priority.
Male leaders should also take a leaf from the books of their female counterparts. Countries headed by women (e.g. New Zealand, Taiwan, and Germany) have largely out-performed those headed by men in terms of economic outcomes and prevention of COVID-19 deaths.
Coronavirus does not discriminate. To say the same of the disease’s outcomes would be foolish.