Covid-19 is not the great equaliser
Women are bearing the brunt of lockdown
The ESRI found that, on average, women spend double the time of men on caring and more than twice as much time on housework. Image: Getty
When all this is over (WATIO) – the hopeful mantra that we have all been repeating to ourselves for the past three months – how will we look back on these Covid times that have caused such immense tragedy and hardship across the world?
One thing we will certainly remember, along with the grief and distress felt by so many, is the frequent repetition of the cliché “Covid-19 is the great equaliser”. Although often used in good faith to remind us of our shared humanity in the face of a devastating virus, this misleading phrase has masked the reality that the negative impacts of coronavirus are multiplied by inequality and disadvantage, at both a societal and an individual level.
The glaring weakness around inadequacy of public supports previously in place for those experiencing homelessness and poverty in Ireland is very clear. But other, more hidden, weaknesses relate to pre-existing issues of gender inequality. Chilling figures have emerged internationally about increased levels of domestic violence against women during enforced lockdowns. Here, NGOs such as Safe Ireland and Women’s Aid have highlighted the need to secure stronger protections for those who at risk of abuse within their homes. But other gender inequalities are also emerging as a result of lockdown, even in otherwise harmonious households.
Before restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus were introduced, women already performed the bulk of unpaid work in Ireland, despite high levels of pre-pandemic employment. In 2019, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that, on average, women spend double the time of men on caring and more than twice as much time on housework; a substantial gender gap persists even among men and women doing the same amount of paid work outside the home; that women in Ireland spent about 20 hours more per week on care and housework than men. This ‘double day’ additional burden for women has become more pronounced with the closure of schools and childcare facilities – and with the need for grandparents to engage in cocooning.
More time spent by everyone at home means that there is more cleaning to do too. Theoretically, for lots of families, working from home might have brought greater equity to the distribution of household chores. Not so, according to the European Commission, which has reported that the Covid-19 crisis has brought about little or no positive change in this area.
Women are still carrying out the bulk of unpaid work in the home; even those women who are also out to work providing essential frontline services throughout this period. It is worth noting that most nurses, cleaners, care workers and cashiers are women, so these numbers are not insignificant. For single parents, about 86 per cent of whom are women, the demands of quarantine are amplified further; a point corroborated by new research from the Central Statistics Office, showing that 48.6 per cent of women would like to return to their place of work after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, compared to 31.7 per cent of men.
Indeed, a study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London found that, of parents working from home, mothers tend to do one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by fathers. In academia, women have long warned of the prevalence of sexism, but since the pandemic began, there has been a reported drop in output from female academics. By contrast, male academics are apparently producing more journal submissions than before; working from home has increased productivity for some.
There is a danger that this inequity, mirrored by an under-representation of women in senior decision-making roles, could result in an uncritical acceptance in some organisations of future working from home arrangements that may adversely impact some women more than men. The reopening of childcare facilities may alleviate this problem, but the pandemic experience has shown what an effect the lack of adequate childcare provision and widespread school closures can have on gender equality across workplaces. Of course, it is in low-paid, precarious sectors that gender inequality is most pronounced. Those who work as underemployed or part-time workers in hospitality, childcare and retail come to mind; overwhelmingly female industries, with women clustered at the lower levels.
So, how to address this chronic inequality? The world is dependent on women’s work. Yet in Ireland, women continue to earn 14 per cent less than men on average. Our appreciation for frontline and essential workers must come in the form of improved working conditions, not platitudes about heroinism. All workers deserve security, union recognition and fair remuneration; delivery of justice requires recognition of the gendered nature of inequalities. Intersectional inequalities, not only of class but also of gender, must be addressed in forward planning to get through this immense public-health crisis.
As a first step, we need legislation to address the gender pay gap; the outgoing government failed to progress the legislation on this that I introduced in 2017 with my Labour colleagues. We also need universal provision of decent, affordable childcare, along with a gender audit of working practices in different organisations as we move forward to the reopening of our economy and the development of what we hope will be a more equal society.
Ivana Bacik is Labour senator for Dublin University