Gender equality in the workplace: Has Covid-19 set us back?

Apr 13, 2021

9 mins

Gender equality in the workplace: Has Covid-19 set us back?
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Every year when International Women’s Day comes around it provides an opportunity to reflect on women’s rights in general and workplace gender equality in particular. After a year spent in the shadow of Covid-19, however, things look very different. Americans are calling this trying time a “shecession”, or a recession that disproportionately affects women. Around the world, experts say we are witnessing a disturbing step backward in terms of women’s rights.

The term “shecession” was coined by C Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who distinguishes between the 2008 financial crisis and the impact of Covid-19 on the economy. The former primarily affected jobs in male-dominated sectors, such as industry and building, while the current recession has hit female-dominated sectors such as frontline services, hospitality, and distribution.

The “shecession” has also revealed the difficult juggling act women perform between domestic and professional duties. Although it’s nothing new, the fact that unpaid domestic work, such as childcare, education, and cleaning, falls primarily on the shoulders of women has huge implications for gender inequality and employment. Remote work has not been a liberating experience for all women. Repeated and lengthy national lockdown measures have led to an increased risk of domestic violence also.

Moreover, the “shecession” is both an intersectional and international crisis. In Western countries, the situation of immigrant women working in frontline services is particularly worrying. Many have families back in their home countries who depend on the money they make to survive. At the same time, Black and minority ethnic (BAME) women face greater discrimination in the workplace. Employed mainly in what is considered “key worker occupations”, these women are more often exposed to the virus. When they are part of the “informal economy”, meaning they are not in regulated employment, these women are left out of the statistics and can not get any form of state assistance when they need it. Without unemployment benefits or support schemes, they have become increasingly dependent on their families.

It’s notable that things have improved dramatically for professional women in France since the law was changed to require that at least 40% of board members of large publicly-listed companies should be women. The figures for 2020 show that the figure is now 45%, but the same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority of women around the globe. It is no coincidence that this quote from Simone de Beauvoir is so popular at the moment: “Never forget that it only takes a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights can never be taken for granted. You must remain vigilant throughout your life.”

2.2 million American women left the workforce in 2020

The term “shecession” comes from the United States, where workplace gender inequality is on the rise, but women around the world have been affected disproportionately by unemployment. National and local lockdowns have affected sectors that employ the greatest number of women. Due to the pandemic, women’s jobs across the globe are 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs. The gender gap is even more marked in the United States, where unemployment remains high in frontline services, along with tourism and hospitality.

Unemployment is not the only problem, however. Even more than European women, working mothers in the US have been forced to leave full-time jobs to take care of their children at home. Some have opted to work part-time while others have left the workforce entirely. In the United States, school closures were widespread throughout the pandemic, and children were home-schooled. Meanwhile, short-time working options have been almost non-existent. Nothing was put in place to help these working mothers to keep their jobs.

In a McKinsey and Lean In report on North American women in employment, one in four said they were considering reducing hours or leaving paid work because of the pandemic. The main reasons they gave were the lack of flexibility from companies, childcare, household duties, and stress. The survey included comparative data that highlighted the gender gap in parenting. While 8% of mothers surveyed had considered switching from full-time to part-time work, only 2% of fathers had.

For American women, opting out is no longer just a choice. In 2020, the lack of free public services, inadequate affordable childcare options, higher expectations placed on mothers, and the unequal distribution of unpaid domestic work within households forced 2.2 million American women to leave the workforce. Many of these women are lawyers, accountants, managers, and executives with successful careers. It seems apparent that, even if they do return to work, income and career inequality will only increase and it will probably take years for them to catch up.

Suicide rates among Japanese women went up by 15% in 2020

Japan has some of the highest levels of gender inequality in the world, with extreme societal expectations placed on mothers, part-time employment common among women, and political and economic power consistently placed in the hands of men. For years, it has been suggested that getting more women into the workforce could help to counter the effects on the economy of Japan’s aging population. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe made support for women to go to work a cornerstone of his economic policy, also known as “Abenomics”. Yet, there is still a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

As the pandemic forced some men to work from home, the gender gap grew wider for Japanese women at home. For single women, the situation has been even more challenging. As in many other countries, more women have lost their jobs, putting the issue of loneliness and social isolation in the national spotlight. With neither office to go to nor remote work to do, the lockdown has increased the number of cases of depression. In Tokyo, one in five women lives alone. And under strict orders to stay at home and avoid visiting their families, feelings of isolation have skyrocketed. Loneliness has become such a serious problem that the country has appointed a minister for loneliness.

Things are not much better for married women there either. Men working from home seem even less likely to share household chores. Worse still, there has been an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault. The pandemic has accentuated some long-standing issues in Japanese society. In a culture based on stoicism, social cohesion, and peer pressure, it is still difficult to ask for help and to talk openly about mental health struggles. For women, the pressure is even greater.

Overall, the rising psychological and physical toll of the pandemic has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in female suicides. Last year, 6,976 women committed suicide in Japan, almost 15% more than in 2019. Although suicide rates are generally high in Japan, it tends to be men who take their own lives. However, in 2020, the number of male suicides dropped slightly while the number of female suicides increased greatly.

Millions of Indian women are trapped in forced marriages

The labor force participation rate of Indian women is among the lowest in the world. Only Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, the West Bank, and Gaza have a lower female labor force participation rate than India. In 1990, the rate in India was 30.3%. By 2019, it had fallen to 20.5%, according to the World Bank. Although the rate for men has decreased slightly over the past years, it is almost four times higher than that of women at 76.08% in 2019. This does not mean that four out of five women stay at home, but that a great number of women work in the informal economy. Not only are they left out of the statistics, but they are also underpaid and often mistreated at work. While this work in the informal economy is real, its value remains largely unknown.

Since India’s first lockdown, women working in the informal economy have been affected severely. Such jobs were the first to disappear. Without rights, many working women had no choice but to return to their parent’s homes in villages. But work, even if unofficial, had represented the possibility of escaping the family home, its violence, and, in particular, the forced marriages that remain common. For others, work had provided an escape from abusive husbands. Stuck at home and unemployed, Indian women have faced an increase in domestic violence. Made vulnerable by the pandemic and without the income once earned by girls in the household, families have forced the latter into marriage. There has also been an increase in forced marriages among very young girls.

According to a report from Save the Children, up to 2.5 million more girls are at risk of forced marriage in the next few years because of the impact of Covid-19. Save the Children predicts the largest rise in child marriage rates in 25 years, as the pandemic has closed many schools and pushed poor families into abject poverty. The report warns that 2020 will be a year of “irreversible setbacks and lost progress” for girls around the world, including Indian women. Across the globe, school closures have interrupted the education of 1.6 billion children. Save the Children estimates that 10 million children, mostly girls, will never return to school.

Even before the pandemic, Indian women were severely affected by the unemployment crisis, according to a 2019 report by Google, and Bain & Company. While the average unemployment rate in India was 7% before the country went into lockdown in March 2020, it was at 18% for women. During the pandemic, as indicated by several studies, more women have their lost jobs than men. Compared to Western countries, the consequences are enormous for Indian women. An increased number are getting pregnant and dying in childbirth, which remains the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds. Fewer girls are going to school and more women are murdered by their families or in-laws.

Women from sub-Saharan Africa working in Europe experience a great deal of insecurity, as do their families back home

Women who migrate to Nigeria or Sudan to work in the UK, or from Mali or Senegal to work in France, make up a significant proportion of domestic workers, nannies, hotel housekeepers, and patient care assistants. These women were particularly affected by the pandemic in 2020 and were more likely to be exposed to the virus. As many work in what is considered “essential” industries and live in poor, often overcrowded conditions, they face a greater risk of infection too.

They are also heavily affected by the current economic crisis. Women who work in the homes of other families don’t have access to employment support schemes or short-time working options. What’s more, many are more vulnerable because they have no legal status in their country of residence. Although likely a minority of cases, illegal immigrants are also more likely to be exploited or to be victims of forced labor. Even legal immigrants face increased discrimination in times of crisis.

Some immigrants have families, including children, back home who depend on the money they send. These remittances are vital and the precarious situation of female immigrants working in Europe has had direct consequences on their countries of origin. In some countries, remittances from migrant workers account for up to a third of the economy. According to the World Bank, these remittances will drop by 14% due to the pandemic—the largest decline in recent history. As World Bank Group president David Malpass said, “Remittances help families afford food, healthcare, and basic needs.”

Of course, the issue of remittances affects all migrant workers who have families back home, not just women. But women are more likely to be single parents and, in the face of economic insecurity, they are also more likely to be victims of physical violence. In other words, this is another area in which women are more affected.

Many women in the UK and Europe have better job security than women in the United States, India, or immigrants from developing countries. Employment support schemes, short-time working options, and public services have helped to prevent the worst. However, the term “shecession” is also relevant in the UK, as the gender gap is widening. Women are more likely to see their work affected or stopped by the pandemic. There is also a greater chance they will opt for short-time work so they can take care of their children during lockdown when schools are closed.

Domestic inequality, which was once thought to be diminishing, has come back with a vengeance, threatening to stall the careers of many female professionals. In a recent study from the Paris office of Boston Consulting Group entitled “The Covid-19 crisis: a setback for gender equality at work?”, 33% of respondents considered that the pandemic had a negative impact on their career prospects.

In particular, the study showed how women are “not in the same league” as men when it comes to remote work. Compared to men, 30% fewer women have a separate workspace—what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own”—and all women are 50% more likely to be interrupted. When it comes to remote meetings, their voices aren’t heard, with 30% fewer women speaking up than men. As a result, women experience increased anxiety and uncertainty about their professional futures. BCG associate director Jessica Apotheker even broaches in the report whether women between 25 and 40 constitute a “lost generation”.

The widespread practice of remote working during the pandemic has stalled the progress of gender equality. Blurring the boundaries between private and professional life, working from home brings domestic inequality to the fore and widens the professional gender gap even more. Although the situation varies between sectors and roles, it will probably take years to make up for the losses accumulated during this period. That is why, now more than ever, we must work out the exact impact of the coronavirus crisis and policy measures on gender inequality.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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