Written by Georgette Morris, Graduate Student, Carleton University & Anjum Sultana, Masters of Public Health, University of Toronto
During this crisis, women workers have been pushed to their limits.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, with all the economic and social spillover efforts, women workers are being asked to do more with less. Not only do women already take on the bulk of unpaid care work like managing the household, taking care of children or elderly parents – this has been amplified during the pandemic along with anxiety over an uncertain future. For women workers at the intersection of many forms of oppression and marginalization such as Black, Indigenous and racialized women, women with precarious immigration status or women with disabilities, the challenges are even more immense.
To ensure all the gains made in recent decades to advance gender equality do not evaporate with COVID-19, we need a multi-pronged approach to ensure workplaces are gender-responsive and equitable.
During this crisis, the increasing pressure of COVID-19 has made the unpaid and paid work women perform disproportionately even more critical such as cooking, cleaning, and caring. To keep society at large safe, schools and camps have closed. To fill the gap, online education has been introduced. However, this has revealed the digital divide. Who is able to access high speed internet or have digital devices to facilitate learning? Whose parents can step in to troubleshoot or provide extra learning support? In a household, who steps in to become the teacher and educator, in addition to taking care of their pre-existing workload? Overwhelmingly, the evidence suggests that women are taking on the lion’s share of their responsibilities with little to no respite. This was the case before COVID-19, but even more so during current times.
To address the current health, economic and social crisis of COVID-19, governments around the world have implemented many policies to curb the impact of this pandemic as well as position societies for post-pandemic recovery. However, the approaches have been critiqued for not being gender-responsive. At best, they are seen as ineffective and at worst, deeply harmful to women.
For example, across the globe, entire societies have been put on lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. While this policy measure may be helpful for addressing this pandemic, it risks putting women in self-isolation and quarantine with abusers. Since the pandemic started, several countries have reported increased incidence of domestic violence such as Canada, China, France, Singapore, Spain and more. This ‘Shadow Pandemic’ as the United Nations is referring to it as, has been hampered by unclear public messaging. Many may not be aware that shelters and support services are still open and ready to provide care to women and children fleeing violence.
Similarly, the closures of schools and recreational programming for children in many countries may last up to 6 months or longer. That means many parents, especially mothers, have been tasked with being a parent, worker and teacher all at the same time. This is unsustainable and risks burning out women. It also indicates how women’s labour is viewed when such policy decisions are being made. Why were there no discussions of support? If women decide to take time off to attend to their care duties, how will they be compensated? How will their contributions to pensions and other employment benefits be covered?
Ways Forward to Protect Gender Equality in the Face of COVID-19
A multi-pronged approach is best suited to protect gender equality given the range of ways it is being threatened in this crisis. The following suggestions provide potential ways forward to address the gendered impacts of COVID-19:
- Ensuring women are represented in all levels of decision making to address the current crisis of COVID-19 as well as on recovery task forces;
- Investing in innovative and accessible tools and programs for training, skill development and re-skilling to support workers whose jobs are at risk of automation as well as contraction due to the COVID-19 induced ‘contactless economy’ especially in women-majority sectors such as retail, hospitality, tourism and food services;
- Increased investments in the care economy with robust development of social infrastructure such as early learning and child care, elder care and care for people with disabilities that also ensure high quality working conditions for care workers;
- Creating policy frameworks to support remote work arrangements such as tax credits and employee supports for internet usage, phone subsidies and covering the costs of purchasing equipment to work from home and rent supplements as well as protect against any gender-discrimination due to work-related challenges during the COVID-19 time period.
What this crisis has highlighted is that gendered inequalities were always present in society but this pandemic has revealed them and laid them bare. In some cases, it has deepened inequities and made the need for gender-responsive approaches even more necessary. Now is the moment to not only protect the gains to advance gender equality but also push towards full inclusion. COVID-19 is a critical opportunity for us to course correct as a society and have truly equitable workplaces. It starts now by putting the lives of women workers at the forefront.
Georgette Morris & Anjum Sultana, “COVID-19 may undermine gender equality progress in the workplace and beyond: Some proposals” Canadian Law of Work Forum (June 24 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/?p=12751