Written by Rosamund Shreeves.
This year’s International Women’s Day will, once again, be held in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed and exacerbated existing gender inequalities. To mark the occasion, Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) is hosting a meeting with national parliaments on 3 March 2022, to explore the potential of gender-sensitive recovery policies, spotlighting inter-related issues around unpaid care work, teleworking and wellbeing.
Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on gender equality
Before the pandemic, gender equality was advancing in most of the areas measured by the EU’s gender equality index, and the less gender-equal Member States were catching up with the most gender-equal ones. The pandemic has put these advances at risk. Issues brought into sharp focus include the gender dimensions of the increase in unpaid care work, the accelerated shift to remote working and the impacts of both these developments on wellbeing and mental health.
Unpaid care work
The gap in time spent doing unpaid care work was already one of the widest and most persistent of the gender gaps measured in the gender equality index. The pandemic has led to an unprecedented shift of this work to the private sphere, due to the extra time family members are spending at home, and closures of, or irregular access to, nurseries, schools and support services. Surveys conducted by Eurofound show that men’s contribution has increased, but women have shouldered the lion’s share of the additional housework, childcare and schooling, even when they are in paid work. The gender care gap is one of the key reasons why women are more likely than men to be in part-time, low-paid and precarious jobs, or out of the labour market altogether. This has undermined their financial security during the Covid‑19 crisis, particularly as these jobs have been more likely to be terminated or furloughed. Research shows that the additional unpaid care work is adding pressures on women – especially working mothers with school-age or younger children – to reduce their working hours or disengage from the labour market.
The pandemic has accelerated the shift to remote working. At EU level, the share of employed people working from home doubled from 5.4 % to 12 % between 2019 and 2020. There is a gender divide, with shares of 5.7 % for women and 5.2 % for men in 2019, rising to 13 % and 11.2 % in 2020. Teleworking is often seen as a way of introducing more flexible working patterns that can contribute to work-life balance and help parents, especially mothers, to stay in or re-enter paid employment. However, the experience of teleworking during the pandemic has also highlighted its potential limitations. The blurring of boundaries between work and home life can lead to more rather than less conflict between work and home, particularly if teleworking is seen a way of resolving childcare issues. There is also a risk that if the gender care gap is not addressed, normalisation of teleworking will open up a further gap between men going back to working on-site and women working at home to meet care responsibilities, with implications for their training opportunities, career advancement and pay.
Both the increase in unpaid care work and the shift to teleworking have implications for wellbeing. Eurofound and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) find that the additional unpaid care work has had significant impacts on women’s work-life balance and mental health, increasing rates of anxiety and depression. Teleworking can also have adverse effects on mental health, since it can be associated with longer working hours and greater work intensity, resulting in work-related stress and sleep disorders, which are reported to be higher in women.
Avenues for an ambitious gender-sensitive recovery
From the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been calls to ensure that policy responses contribute to gender equality and the EU’s resilience to future shocks. One key recommendation is to ensure systematic gender mainstreaming in all policies intended to address the immediate economic and social damage and the move to a more sustainable and digital society. There are also recommendations for more targeted policies:
- Closing the gender care gap: The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is calling for a two-pronged approach of promoting more equal sharing of unpaid care work between women and men and ensuring access to affordable provision of formal care. Concrete measures could include extending parental leave and incentivising fathers to take it; and investing in the care sector, including improvements to pay, career prospects and working conditions for care workers.
- Establishing a gender-sensitive framework for teleworking: The International Labour Organization (ILO), the Council of the European Union and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) recommend that teleworking policies should be developed in conjunction with other policies to ensure work-life balance, equal training and career opportunities, address the gender gap in digital skills and prevent violence and harassment. To avoid teleworking cementing the gender care gap, companies could set mandatory telework days.
- Making use of recovery funding to invest in a care-led recovery: Unlike in the case of the 2008 economic and financial crisis, recovery from the Covid‑19 pandemic is expected to be supported by expanding public investment. Economists have demonstrated that switching recovery investment from the traditional focus on construction and manufacturing to the care sector would create more jobs for both women and men and provide a better economic stimulus. A study for the European Parliament recommends that at least 30 % of the EU funding provided through the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) should go to investment in the care economy, to put it on an even footing with the allocations of 37 % and 30 % for the green and digital transitions.
Action at EU level
EU legislation aimed at addressing the gender gap in unpaid care and facilitating work-life balance by establishing new rights to parental and carers’ leave, is due to be transposed into national law in 2022. The European Commission also intends to propose a new European care strategy, which is expected to include revised EU targets on childcare provision, and recommendations on long-term care. The European Pillar of Social Rights and the related action plan adopted in 2021 already establish parents’ right to access care services as a key principle. The EU gender equality strategy for 2020-2025 identifies closing gender gaps in caring roles as a priority and urges the Member States to invest in childcare. There is scope for them to do so using EU recovery and structural funding, this being a specific objective of the ESF+ programme.
European Parliament positions
In January 2021, Parliament adopted a resolution on the gender perspective in the Covid‑19 crisis and post-crisis period, addressing the harmful gendered and intersectional impacts of the pandemic and setting out recommendations for overcoming them. Parliament is clear that current and future challenges will require ‘a gender-sensitive approach, with gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting principles reflected in all aspects of the pandemic response’. Parliament has consistently called for better provision of affordable childcare, drawing attention to its role in improving outcomes for children, enabling parents – particularly mothers – to enter, stay in or return to employment, and achieving gender equality. Parliament has called on Member States to use EU funding programmes, including recovery funding, to invest in childcare services. It has also called specifically for investment in the care sector and for a new care deal for Europe. Parliament has highlighted the urgent need to consider the risks posed by the increase of teleworking during the pandemic for people with caring responsibilities, particularly women, and called for gender aspects to be addressed in the context of the right to disconnect. Parliament has made recommendations for addressing the gender dimension of mental health in connection with the gender care gap and work-life balance.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Beyond the pandemic: The potential of ambitious gender equality policy‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.