By Maha Rafi Atal
◦ 5 min read ◦
Most years, International Women’s Day is greeted by articles highlighting both progress made towards gender equality, and the distance still to close. 2021 is different. This year, organizations from the European Parliament to UN Women have instead drawn attention to how women have been pushed backwards – economically and politically – during the coronavirus. It has been “a disaster for feminism,”and a “great amplifier” which has exacerbated existing inequalities and unraveled tenuous gains. What does the research show?
First, the global economic contraction of the past year has disproportionately harmed women. In the United States alone, more than 2 million women have dropped out of the labor force altogether, a regression to 1988 participation levels, erasing a generation of gains.
Globally, women account for 54% of jobs lost during the pandemic, even though they make up only 39% of the global formal workforce.
Women bore the brunt of job losses in 17 of the 24 member-states of the OECD in 2020, and in South Africa, a survey found that two-thirds of workers laid off or furloughed in the first wave of the pandemic were women.
In part, this is a reflection of the sectors women work in, such as travel, tourism, restaurants, and food production, which have been largely shut down over the past year.
Women are also more likely to be employed on precarious or zero-hours contracts within these sectors, which made them vulnerable to job cuts, or in informal roles which left them outside the reach of government income-support schemes.
Finally, 190 million women work in global supply chains, including garments and food processing, and these industries have contracted as buyers either withdrew orders from suppliers during the recession, or sought to re-shore production closer to home. Labor market dynamics also mean women who stayed in work are among the most exposed to contracting the virus itself. A majority – estimates range from 67 to 76 percent – of the global health care workforce are women.
Yet only one quarter of the gendered discrepancy in job losses can be explained by the sectors where women are employed. Far more significant is the burden of care labor, both paid and unpaid, which disproportionately falls on women in both developed and developing countries.
Working mothers in the United Kingdom, for example, are 50% more likely than fathers to have either lost their jobs or quit in order to accommodate the responsibilities of caring for children with schools closed, with European women doing on average twice as much care labor as men during this period.
Over a million women in Japan left the job market in the first wave of the pandemic due to childcare needs at home, erasing tenuous progress the country had made towards workplace gender equality in the last decade. This unequal weight of the pandemic builds on pre-existing inequalities, as women are lower earners in many societies, meaning their jobs are considered a lower priority – by both employers and households – in times of crisis.
This economic crisis is not just a blow to women’s economic position, but to their political freedom. The “Local Diaries” podcast in India recounts the stories of women whose personal, political and sexual freedoms have evaporated as they have been locked down at home. As in pandemics past, covid-19 has seen a significant spike in domestic violence, femicide and other gender-bases violence in countries under lockdown. These include including developing countries like Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, and China, and developed countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden and Italy, a reminder that the home is not a safe place for many women. UN Women has referred to these spikes in violence as the “shadow pandemic.”
Moreover, despite early warnings from international organizations and women’s rights advocates, many countries shut down or diverted resources away from reproductive health care during the pandemic, leading to a rise in maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and pregnancy-related deaths. Finally, lockdowns themselves – and the expansion of policing and military powers associated with their enforcement – can themselves pose a risk to women, as police forces can themselves be significant perpetrators of violence against women, and as governments take advantage of these powers to suppress political organizing, including feminist organizing, as seen recently in both the UK and Poland.
At the same time, in a punishing political environment, women and feminist organizations have been at the forefront of pandemic response. The Chilean feminist movement has released a useful guide for governments and employers for responding to the pandemic in a gender-just way, while the Indian Kudumbashree women’s collective organized grassroots community kitchens and takeaway restaurants to provide food and employment to women, especially migrant women, during the country’s shut down, and repurposed textile micro-enterprises, largely women-owned, for the manufacture of PPE.
Despite calls from international experts for governments to respond directly to the crisis facing women by keeping services for reproductive health or shelters for victims of gender-based violence open, targeting cash transfers to women in informal employment and providing for paid child care, UNDP reports that only 12% of governments have adopted adequate gender-sensitive measures in their pandemic response.
Meanwhile, employers who have disproportionately laid off women in the crisis now report that gender equity will take a backseat to restoring their financial sustainability as the pandemic ends. This is made more difficult by the fact that some governments, such as the UK, have suspended requirements for companies to report on their gender pay gap or comply with other equality requirements, as part of pandemic support.
In our own research on corporate responses to covid-19, we found brands advertising luxury fashion goods to women and presenting the pandemic lockdowns as a welcome relief from labor in which women could enjoy them, a regressive image that shows how women’s work is still seen as frivolous and extraneous.
This International Women’s Day, then, we must reflect not on what progress we have made or can make, but on how women, internationally, can recover what we have lost.
About the Author
Maha Rafi Atal is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School, where her research focuses on corporate power, corporate social responsibility and corporate influence in the media. She is a co- Investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. http://www.maha-rafi-atal.com