Covid-19 and Gender: Differences in the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in Europe
In Europe, gender-based inequalities are being significantly deepened by the pandemic. Covid-19 impacts on health and socio-economic conditions are more severe for women because of their subordinate position in society and deep-rooted gender norms.
Despite sex-specific characteristics causing higher Covid-19 mortality among men, women’s health is being disproportionately affected because of gender-segregation in the labour market and gender- discriminatory reallocation of resources to healthcare systems.
Domestic and parental duties have increased disproportionately for women because of deep-rooted gender norms. This is affecting women’s position in the labour market and, in the long term, could increase the existing gender gap in employment and pay levels.
As a result of lockdown measures, Europe is witnessing an increase in domestic violence, which exacerbates gender power relations.
To find long-term solutions to the further gender-discriminations caused by the pandemic, policymakers should adopt the ‘gender mainstreaming approach’. This implies incorporating the gender perspective in all dimensions of policy-responses, from reformation of the healthcare system, to changes in the labour market and social security systems.
This year began with great potential for reinvigorating discussion and action on gender equality, in both the European context and international community at large. With the 25th anniversary of the ‘UN Fourth World Conference on Women’ and the 20th year since the implementation of the ‘UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security’, several international meetings were on schedule to discuss the progress made so far. Moreover, the ‘EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025’ was launched in early March as part of the European Commission’s commitment to achieving a ‘Union of Equality’. Acknowledging that significant gender discrimination remains present across EU countries, the Commission’s strategy focuses on key objectives, such as ending gender-based violence, challenging gender stereotypes, closing gender gaps in the labour market, and achieving balance in decision-making positions. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has undermined this potential, as international meetings have been cancelled and the achievement of the EU strategies’ objectives risks being heavily jeopardised.
Gender-based discriminations, as with many social, political and economic inequalities, are being significantly deepened by the pandemic, as occurs during all health crises. In fact, the impact of the pandemic is more severe on already-vulnerable population groups identified by these divides, due to their subordinate position in society. Early national and international reports already observe gender differences in the impacts of Covid-19 on many dimensions of life. This makes the adoption of a ‘gender mainstreaming’ approach in producing policy responses to the pandemic even more urgent. As such an approach consists in the integration of the gender perspective into all other areas of policy, it can be adopted to better address gender-discriminating aspects of Covid-19. In the following sections, we analyse two dimensions where the pandemic is causing significant gender differences in Europe: health and the domestic sphere, which in turn impacts women’s socio-economic status.
Gendered impacts on health
According to current Covid-19 worldwide statistics (GlobalHealth5050, 2020), more men than women are dying of acute infection. This is in line with typical sex-specific (meaning biologically determined) differences observed in immune responses to other types of infectious diseases. Females typically show more vigorous immune response capacity, which can be related to hormonal and genetic differences or differences in intestinal bacteria (Klein & Flanagan, 2016). However, according to a case study by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Expert Group for Gendered Innovations/Innovation Through Technology, the intervention of gender-specific (meaning socially determined) differences makes the Covid-19 impact on health disproportionate for women (European Commission, 2020d).
The first reason for this gender-disproportion is that women’s health is generally more impacted by the reallocation of resources and priorities in healthcare systems due to the pandemic. In fact, as Covid-19 is the current priority and a significant stressor in healthcare systems, both the demand and provision of other medical services have been reduced or delayed. These healthcare restrictions are having disproportionate effects on women, as female-specific routine treatments, such as reproductive and feminine health services are being deprioritised. Additionally, restrictions in oncological treatments and prevention, such as delays of cancer screenings, operations and chemotherapy, might affect women and men differently. In fact, female-specific cancers are especially prevented by routine medical services, such as breast and cervical cancer screenings (European Commission, 2020d). Particular concern has been raised over breast cancer, as on the occasion of the European Week Against Cancer held last May, many European countries have reported an unrealistic sudden drop in breast cancer cases. For example, the Dutch Cancer Registry shows a decline by more than 50% of breast tumours between February and April, which can only be explained by the reduction of screenings (European Commission, 2020b). This current decline in diagnoses might generate a significant increase in female cancer patients in advanced stages in the near future, and the European Society of Medical Oncology has created a task force on ‘Gender in Oncology’ to address this possibility.
The second reason for the pandemic’s gender-disproportionate impact on women’s health is gender segregation in the labour market (EIGE, 2020). Different professions expose groups of people to different levels of infection risk, depending on the number of SARS-CoV2 infected people and the concentration of the virus with which workers come into contact. Healthcare workers and caring professionals, such as providers of home-based care to children, older people and people with disabilities, are more exposed to the virus in comparison to the general population. Gender intersects these profession-related risk groups, as women worldwide are more frequently employed in service professions, including healthcare inside and outside hospitals, and perform the majority of caring duties in families and close communities. For example, in the EU, women make up 76% of healthcare workers, 93% of childcare workers and teacher’s aides, 86% of personal care workers in health services and 95% of domestic cleaners and helpers (EIGE, 2020). Within the home-based caring sector especially, figures are likely higher than estimates due to the large share of undeclared employment. Another group of essential workers that tend to be overexposed to the virus are those employed in the service sector, such as salespersons. In this sector, women are disproportionately exposed to risk because of labour market gender-segregation. In the EU, except for street and market salespersons, women make up the majority of all other categories of workers in a sales role, such as cashiers, ticket clerks and shop salespersons (EIGE, 2020). Therefore, despite sex-specific characteristics causing higher Covid-19 mortality among men, women’s health is being disproportionately affected because of gender-based differences, such as gender-discriminatory reallocation of resources to healthcare systems and gender-segregation in the labour market. Responses to the pandemic must account for these gender-based differences to prevent long-term negative impacts on women’s health.
Gendered impacts on the domestic sphere and socio-economic status
Gender life-balance in the domestic sphere has also been significantly impacted by the pandemic, as the burden of unpaid care work at home has inevitably increased. As hospitals and healthcare centres are overwhelmed, early-released Covid-19 patients; non-Covid-19 related patients, who had their medical treatments postponed; and older persons are left to the voluntary care of families and communities. Since schools are closed and grandparents have been discouraged from providing childcare for the risk of exposure to the virus, childcare duties have also been left solely to parents, posing a great challenge to single parents. Gender considerations are necessary as such an increased burden might be disproportionately carried by women, as the default unpaid family caregivers.
Before the pandemic, data were already showing a significantly unbalanced picture of domestic life. The most recent Eurofound European Quality of Life Survey (2016) showed that traditional gender norms that expect women to be caretakers were still prevailing in Europe, and the division of time spent on housework and childcare was in line with those norms. Furthermore, the OECD (2020b) found that, on average, women were spending two hours more than men at home per day. This was even true for progressive countries in the Scandinavian region, where women were still spending, on average, one hour more on domestic work than men per day. When accounting for employed women and men, women were 50% more likely than men to engage with unpaid domestic work. This asymmetry in the domestic sphere was already having an impact on the economic status of women and their position in the labour market. In fact, data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (2020) confirmed the existence of the “motherhood penalty”, which describes how employers penalise working mothers by denying them pay increases, promotions and assignment of important tasks at work. Significantly, in the UK, the gender pay gap persisted even when working hours and occupations were accounted for. According to Eurostat (2018) and the OECD (2020a), such a pay imbalance was already ranging between 18% to 45% depending on the employment sector before the crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified such disparities as, with the closure of schools and recreational facilities for children, parents have spent more time at home for childcare. However, previsions on the impact of the lockdown period on gender role norms are still unclear. A common hypothesis is that teleworking is creating opportunities to move towards a more gender-neutral distribution of domestic work (European Commission, 2020c). In fact, the EU (2020) argues that teleworking men might contribute more to domestic work and caring duties, aiding employed women to focus more on their work. However, such behaviour is more likely to happen only in more gender-equal progressive countries with higher levels of education and female emancipation (Knight and Brinton, 2017). Moreover, early country data on women’s economic situation in the pandemic give little reason to expect a rapid and significant change in deep-rooted gender norms. Notably, as lockdown measures are being eased by European governments, ILO argues that women are more likely to continue working from home, whilst men will return to their offices. More than 10% of European women surveyed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2020) said that they were unable to work because of their childcare duties at home. This will only further exacerbate the gender labour disparity and might have long-term negative effects on their position in the labour market as a population group, and their individual careers.
In the post-Covid-19 predictions, the OECD (2020b) finds that gender employment gaps will increase because of women’s traditional and now-increased larger share of parental duties, shorter job tenure and segregation in affected job sectors. Furthermore, the European Commission’s policy report on the effects of Covid-19 on gender divides in Europe estimates that the increase in unpaid domestic work responsibilities induces women to reduce their working hours or even temporarily quit their jobs (European Commission, 2020a). The Institute of Fiscal Studies (2020) supports these predictions with evidence collected during government lockdown in the UK, showing that mothers have been more likely to experience furlough than fathers and their working hours have been cut by over 50%. A woman’s choice to reduce or give up job duties might be facilitated by the existing gender pay gap (14.8% across Europe) that makes it financially rational, especially as in the majority of double-breadwinner European households women contribute less to the household income than their partners (European Commission, 2020c). Moreover, a disproportionate excess of housework and childcare duties can be detrimental for teleworking women, whose effectiveness might be disrupted, putting at risk their job positions and their career prospects. Therefore, existing gender disparities in the distribution of unpaid domestic work risk to revert the progress made so far in the EU labour market concerning gender equality and the exacerbation of existing disparities. For example, the wage gap can widen, as women lose human capital by being absent from the labour market, and future female participation in work can decline, as traditional gender roles are reinforced by women returning to a dependent condition. Furthermore, in Europe 26.5% of employed women are in precarious jobs, such as part-time employment, seasonal and casual work, or fixed-term work. The pandemic might even put at risk future contract renovation, the safety of labour processes, decent levels of incomes and social and regulatory protection.
Another aspect of the domestic sphere to analyse is violence perpetrated on women within their own households. The pandemic is having a dramatic impact in that respect, as isolation measures in response to Covid-19 increase the opportunities for gender-based domestic violence. The situation in the EU was already extremely serious, as the most recent report by the European Institution for Gender Equality revealed that one out of three women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partner during their lifetime (EIGE 2017). The increase in socio-economic stress experienced by households, as well as the obligation to share the same space with abusers has caused a significant increase in the perpetration of domestic violence on women across the EU and the world. Some countries reported an unprecedented increase in reported cases: since the 17 March lockdown, helplines in Cyprus have registered a 30% increase in calls, and centres in France have reported similar figures (European Commission, 2020c). Other countries instead, such as Italy, reported a decline in the number of requests for help, which is an indicator of the inability of victims to have a phone conversation when the perpetrator is nearby and able to monitor their victim (European Commission, 2020c). The reduction in women’s shelters and specific medical services due to the pandemic also contributes to this worsening situation, as victims cannot find alternative refuge to their home, shared with their abusers. Therefore, the increase in domestic violence is an alarm that Covid-19 is deeply affecting gender relations, and it strongly urges for the adoption of an explicit gender perspective in formulating policy responses.
Proposals: Gender mainstream responses
Once it is recognised that Covid-19 impacts have a significant gender dimension, it follows that all policy responses to the pandemic should incorporate a gender perspective, according to the gender mainstream approach. In particular, to address the gender-imbalances in health, domestic life and socio-economic status, which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, international and national organisations should consider women’s needs and demands. This is more likely to occur if responses integrate female voices through gender-balanced representation in decision-making positions.
With regards to solutions to the gender-specific health issues caused by the pandemic; we suggest three major areas of discussion. First, all Covid-19 clinical data should be sex-disaggregated. This may allow for sex-analysis to offer new insights for the development of targeted therapies and ensure that prevention and medical information messages are targeted to different contexts and account for women and girls’ perspectives. Second, institutions shall consider health policies and plans to restructure healthcare facilities to give special attention to the health and psychological needs of frontline female health workers and support staff. Notably, health care services should provide personal protective equipment of the appropriate size for women and include essential hygiene and sanitation items for female health workers. Third, reformation of healthcare systems shall ensure uninterrupted provision of standard health service, especially, sexual and reproductive healthcare. Special attention should be given to the continuation of health care services for older women, gender-based violence survivors, pregnant women and HIV patients.
To produce responses to the impact of the pandemic on the domestic and socio-economic dimensions, governments shall address the issue of gender imbalance by considering parents’ work and caring responsibilities. In particular, governments may examine the possibility of investing more or expanding income support measures for working mothers. They may expand family and sick leave for both men and women, introduce paid reduction of working time and work-sharing solutions for workers with familial responsibilities. This can come in conjunction with social policies that relieve mothers from the childcare burden, such as continuing and expanding school feeding programmes, and adapting them to the crisis by organising food delivery or pick-up. Such labour-specific measures should be accompanied by continued efforts promoting long-term change in gender-discriminating social norms, such as school education programmes and campaigns supported by the European Commission Gender Equality strategy.
To tackle the issue of domestic violence, governments should consider integrating prevention efforts and services to respond to the increase in domestic violence. In particular, victims’ shelters may be classified as essential services and benefit from a greater reallocation of resources and funds. To increase the provision of shelter, governments may repurpose social spaces, such as empty hotels, as well as designate safe spaces for women to report abuse without getting noticed by perpetrators (grocery stores, pharmacies) and move help services online. A virtuous example of a response to gender-violence during the pandemic comes from Spain, where an instant messaging service with a geolocation function was established to provide immediate psychological support and send intervention to victims (European Commission, 2020c). Furthermore, France had a prompt response plan, as grocery stores hosted pop-up-services and 20,000 hotel rooms have been transformed into shelters for women at risk of violence (European Commission, 2020c).
Finally, to ensure gender mainstream is integrated into policy responses, it is necessary to address gender imbalance in decision-making institutions. At all institutional levels – national, regional and supranational – there is a significant divide between men and women in decisional positions. Recent data from EIGE show that in early 2020 only 32.3% of seats in European national parliaments were held by women, as well as 33.7% of seats in regional assemblies and, at the EU level, 40% of seats in the European Parliament (European Commission, 2020c). These disparities are particularly evident at the financial policy-making level, where solutions to the gender economic impact should be sought (Brunsden & Khan, 2020). The governing council of the European Central Bank, which is the central bank’s highest institutional body, is composed of 23 men and only two women. Similarly, the European Banking Authority and its constellation of markets and insurance authorities have not been chaired by women since their creation in 2011. Thus, a larger number of women should have access to decisional positions to account for gender-specific issues and find appropriate solutions. We hope the pandemic might accelerate progress in representational equality, as a necessary step for achieving substantive gender equality in all other dimensions of life and society.
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