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The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on our lives. Even though some countries have started easing their restrictions recently, the pandemic is far from over. While healthcare workers are all hands on deck to treat the influx of COVID-19 patients and the pharmaceutical companies are in the race of developing a vaccine and an antiviral drug against COVID-19, other threats are looming on the horizon. Obvious problems such as economic downturn and widespread layoffs have made the headlines in the past couple of months but there are other crises such as the widening of the gender gap lurking in the dark.

We are having a “She-cession”

The financial downturns in the past didn’t particularly hit women the hardest. The recession that we are having is now called “She-cession”. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing more job losses among women - the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the employment situation in April and the unemployment rate for women was 15.5% and for men was 13.0%.

Why was the unemployment rate of women higher? A survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more women are working in food preparation and serving related occupations. During the lockdown, restaurants are forced to close, some of them might need to furlough their staff to keep their business afloat, some unlucky ones might have to shut down their business. Retail is another area that is suffering greatly because of the pandemic and most of the retail sales positions are held by women.

What happens when the unemployment rate for women is rising? More women will be forced to stay at home and do unpaid work, such as childcare and household chores. Some of them will need to do freelance, part-time or temporary jobs which generally pay less to survive. All of this will widen the existing gender gap. This turmoil doesn’t end when the pandemic ceases as job-seeking has never been easy for women. We have more obstacles to overcome - gender-based discrimination, the gender pay gap, and inflexible work schedule, just to name a few.

Increased Unpaid Workload

For the women whose job isn’t affected by the pandemic, they might not be as lucky as it seems. During the lockdown, schools are closed and that means they have to take care of and homeschool their children. Working from home is no holiday, it is like doing two full-time jobs at the same time. Men might share some of the responsibilities but childcare and household chores traditionally fall on women’s shoulders. According to a survey in 2015, in the UK, women were spending more time doing household chores than men, they spent on average 7.28 hours a week on cooking and 4.67 hours on childcare. During the pandemic, it will not be surprising to see these figures have risen dramatically.The Institute for Fiscal Studies has surveyed nearly 3600 families in England between 29 April and 15 May 2020, one of their key findings is that mothers are spending less time on paid work but more time on household responsibilities.

The increased unpaid workload doesn’t only take a toll on gender equality but also on women’s mental health.

The silver lining

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major setback for gender equality but the outlook might not be as gloomy as it seems. Because of the lockdown, lots of businesses are encouraging their staff to work from home - a way of working that many companies have never considered trying prior to the pandemic. Working from home could be beneficial to businesses as it would save the cost of renting office premises and other utility bills. For female job seekers, it would be easier for them to look for employment as they would not need to worry about their commute time to work. A working from home arrangement could also come with a flexible work schedule, all of this would make it easier for women to look after their family. In addition to this, they would be able to look for opportunities in other cities which would increase their chance to have gainful employment.

The current work from home situation also offers a chance for men to see how much unpaid work women have been doing. Being able to see or even experience first-handed how much women have been sacrificing for the family, could be a major turning point of changing the longstanding social norm. There is a possibility for a change in mindsets and better gender equality in the post COVID era. It is up to both men and women to adapt and change for a more just and equitable world.

Written by Ainsley Fagerström

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