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International Women’s Day 2021: Gender equality in the shadow of the pandemic

Written by Rosamund Shreeves,

Credit: UN Women/Yihui Yuan.

International Women’s Day on 8 March is a time for celebrating women’s achievements and a time to measure and commit to parity, globally and in our own European region, countries and communities. This year, Covid‑19 is once again an uninvited guest to the celebration, bringing with it a multitude of unwanted gifts – and a few that may turn out to be useful – if we use them well.

Over the past 12 months, the pandemic has illustrated the contributions and capacities of women leaders and decision-makers, and the women making pioneering breakthroughs in vaccine research. It has also opened our eyes to the work that women do to keep vital public services running. Data from the European Union’s Gender Equality Institute (EIGE) shows that women make up 76 % of the 49 million healthcare workers in the EU, 86 % of personal care workers, 93 % of childcare workers, and 82 % of cashiers. However, the data also show that women’s contribution to this vital work is undervalued and badly paid. Many of the women working in these sectors are amongst the lowest paid workers in the EU. Many work irregular hours in poor working conditions, with lower entitlements to social security and safety nets. Over the past year, these women have been ‘on the frontline’ of the fight against Covid‑19, in roles that involve greater risk of exposure to the virus and greater risk of becoming infected. Research finds that women make up the majority of confirmed cases of Covid‑19 in healthcare facilities. The pandemic could be an opportunity to rethink the value of this work, invest in our health and care infrastructure, and improve pay and working conditions.

Video: Covid-19 increases women’s unpaid care work

The pandemic has also exposed the amount of ‘invisible’ work women are doing to keep families running and how this affects their own wellbeing, paid work and economic independence. Before the pandemic, women in the EU were doing a disproportionate share of the unpaid childcare and domestic work – on average 13 hours more than men every week. This gender gap in care has remained stubbornly persistent over time, even as increasing numbers of women have entered the labour market. It remains one of the main reasons why women are more likely than men to be out of the labour market or working in part-time roles that offer more flexibility to combine work and family life. Measures taken to curb the spread of the virus, in particular the closure of schools, nurseries and day care centres for people with disabilities, have now shifted responsibility for care work back to families, just when the unprecedented move to teleworking has concentrated professional activities in the home. Survey data from Eurofound shows that these changes are having particularly significant impacts on women. During lockdowns, men have been taking on more domestic work, especially childcare, which could be a positive sign for the future. However, women have shouldered the lion’s share of the additional caring and domestic work, including home schooling, even when they are also engaged in paid work. This is already taking a toll on women’s mental health and work-life balance and could have long-term impacts on their jobs and careers. Reports from countries including Germany, Hungary and Italy already show that mothers have ‘voluntarily’ withdrawn from paid work because of the lack of childcare – or been made redundant by their employer.

It should not be forgotten that many households themselves employ domestic workers, predominantly women, often from migrant backgrounds, whose jobs have also been vulnerable as a result of lockdowns. Intersectional data from the United Kingdom shows that workers in shut-down sectors of the economy are more likely than average to be Black Asian and minority ethnic, women and part-time workers. Overall, Eurofound is signalling that, unlike the 2008 financial and economic and financial crisis, when the largest job losses were among men, women working in low-paid service sectors hard hit by lockdowns, such as hospitality, retail and tourism, now face major job losses. EIGE’s initial research findings on the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, published on 5 March 2021, are that 40 % of the 2.2 million jobs lost by women across the EU in the first wave of the pandemic were in retail, accommodation, residential care, domestic work and clothing manufacturing. In addition, despite rising employment in the summer, women gained only half as many jobs as men.

There are therefore increasing concerns that the pandemic could reverse the progress made in closing the gender employment gap – and progress towards gender equality overall. One positive gift from the pandemic would be if the gender gaps and inequalities it has exposed and exacerbated acted as a catalyst for action. There are signs that governments are recognising some of the gendered impacts of the pandemic itself and the measures taken to combat it. For example, the United Nations’ Covid‑19 global gender response tracker, which is monitoring measures taken by governments shows that all 27 EU Member States have adopted at least one gender-sensitive measure in response to the Covid‑19 crisis. Most EU Member States have adopted at least one measure directly addressing the surge in domestic violence under lockdowns. However, the UN’s review of measures adopted in Europe concludes that the relatively low number of labour market, fiscal and economic measures aimed at helping women to keep their jobs or re-enter the labour market is a major gap in the response so far. Researchers are also cautioning that women and women’s organisations have been under-represented in the task forces that take decisions on policies – and often miss the gender dimension.

The European Parliament’s resolution on the gender perspective in the Covid‑19 crisis and post-crisis period, as well as many experts invited to participate in its events to mark International Women’s Day, stress the need for a gender-sensitive response to the pandemic. They note that it will be particularly important to ensure that gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting principles are reflected in all aspects of the response to Covid‑19, including the targeting of EU funding and the priorities set in national recovery plans, to ensure an equitable recovery that contributes to gender equality and improves lives.

EPRS publications for International Women’s Day

Covid-19: The need for a gendered response, Briefing by Rosamund Shreeves, with Giulio Sabbati, February 2021

In the midst of the current Covid‑19 pandemic, adopting a gender perspective may seem a secondary concern. However, evidence shows that pandemics affect women and men differently and that it is essential to recognise these differences in order to understand the impacts on individuals and communities and to respond effectively and equitably.

The coronavirus crisis: An emerging gender divide?, Infographic by Marie Lecerf and Giulio Sabbati, March 2021

The European Union remains severely hit by the coronavirus crisis, whose impact extends far beyond public health. Employment and working conditions have undergone major upheavals, raising the issue of a possible reversal of progress on gender equality. This infographic aims to shed light on the socioeconomic and psychological impacts of the pandemic on women, through the lens of the transformation of the labour market, work-life balance and well-being. It is based on Eurostat data and a study conducted by Eurofound on living and working during the pandemic.

Women in politics in the EU: State of play, Briefing by Rosamund Shreeves and Martina Prpic, with Eulalia Claros, February 2021

The EU has committed to achieving gender balance in political representation. Since EU policies can influence the lives of women and men in different ways, it is important that both sexes have equal representation in posts that can make a difference. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need for gender balance in decision-making.

Women in front of and behind the camera: Still struggling with inequality

The Bauhaus movement: Where are the women?

Thematic digest: We are strong: women leading the fight against Covid-19, Expert and research publications

Multilingual graphics

Women in the European Parliament by Member State

Български (jpg | pdf) – Español (jpg | pdf) – Čeština (jpg | pdf) – Dansk (jpg | pdf) – Deutsch (jpg | pdf) – Eesti Keel (jpg | pdf) – Ελληνικά (jpg | pdf) – English (jpg | pdf) – Français (jpg | pdf) – Gaeilge (jpg | pdf) – Hrvatski (jpg | pdf) – Italiano (jpg | pdf) – Latviešu Valoda (jpg | pdf) – Lietuvių Kalba (jpg | pdf) – Magyar (jpg | pdf) – Malti (jpg | pdf) – Nederlands (jpg | pdf) – Polski (jpg | pdf) – Português (jpg | pdf) – Română (jpg | pdf) – Slovenčina (jpg | pdf) – Slovenščina (jpg | pdf) – Suomi (jpg | pdf) – Svenska (jpg | pdf)

Image taken from the EPRS Briefing on Women in politics in the EU: State of play

Employment shifts due to the coronavirus crisis

Български (jpg | pdf) – Español (jpg | pdf) – Čeština (jpg | pdf) – Dansk (jpg | pdf) – Deutsch (jpg | pdf) – Eesti Keel (jpg | pdf) – Ελληνικά (jpg | pdf) – English (jpg | pdf) – Français (jpg | pdf) – Gaeilge (jpg | pdf) – Hrvatski (jpg | pdf) – Italiano (jpg | pdf) – Latviešu Valoda (jpg | pdf) – Lietuvių Kalba (jpg | pdf) – Magyar (jpg | pdf) – Malti (jpg | pdf) – Nederlands (jpg | pdf) – Polski (jpg | pdf) – Português (jpg | pdf) – Română (jpg | pdf) – Slovenčina (jpg | pdf) – Slovenščina (jpg | pdf) – Suomi (jpg | pdf) – Svenska (jpg | pdf)Image taken from the EPRS Infographic The coronavirus crisis: An emerging gender divide?

Deaths due to coronavirus in the EU by the sex of citizens

Български (jpg | pdf) – Español (jpg | pdf) – Čeština (jpg | pdf) – Dansk (jpg | pdf) – Deutsch (jpg | pdf) – Eesti Keel (jpg | pdf) – Ελληνικά (jpg | pdf) – English (jpg | pdf) – Français (jpg | pdf) – Gaeilge (jpg | pdf) – Hrvatski (jpg | pdf) – Italiano (jpg | pdf) – Latviešu Valoda (jpg | pdf) – Lietuvių Kalba (jpg | pdf) – Magyar (jpg | pdf) – Malti (jpg | pdf) – Nederlands (jpg | pdf) – Polski (jpg | pdf) – Português (jpg | pdf) – Română (jpg | pdf) – Slovenčina (jpg | pdf) – Slovenščina (jpg | pdf) – Suomi (jpg | pdf) – Svenska (jpg | pdf)Graphic taken from the EPRS Briefing ‘Covid-19: The need for a gendered response‘, March 2021.

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