The Biased Virus: How COVID-19 has shone a light on gender inequality
Although you would be extremely hard-pressed to find any individual who hasn’t been affected by the current pandemic, there are some demographics that have been impacted more than others. In this particular instance, we’re talking about women.
Don’t get me wrong, we have been making some great strides in the way of gender equality. However, there’s still a long way to go and my, oh my, has this virus let that be known. So much so, that it has practically picked up a megaphone and screamed at us to take more action.
There are many, many areas of our society that have been highlighted during this time, making it gleamingly obvious where our gender biases lie. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s get stuck into it.
The Gendered Sectors
For the past 20 years in Australia, we have seen our workforce remain rather segregated when it comes to gender. Now, there are quite a few reasons for this, but that is a topic for another time.
While men tend to flock towards industries such as mining, construction, manufacturing and so on, women tend to dominate the education, retail, hospitality and healthcare sectors.
During the pandemic, COVID-19 has caused absolute devastation throughout many, many industries for different reasons. Some industries, however, seem to have resembled professional dodgeball players, during this time – ducking and weaving through the destruction, coming out on the other side, relatively unscathed.
Mines continued to be mined, construction commenced, unhindered and production lines moved along – some of them even faster than ever.
So that’s the male-dominated industries, but what happened to the female-dominated ones?
During this crisis, women’s jobs have proven to be 19% more vulnerable than that of men. Globally, 4.5% of all women’s employment has been at risk during the pandemic compared to 3.8% of men’s employment.
An estimated 40% of women employed globally work in the industries most affected by the virus – hospitality and retail. People working in these areas have been losing their jobs left, right and centre as their companies have been stopped dead in their track. Though there is one particular female-dominated industry that has been working non-stop to clean up after the COVID-19 dictator and that is healthcare. Boy, oh boy, has the healthcare sector been worked overtime.
Well, that’s one line for the tally in the women’s column… actually no, scratch that – it’s not at all. Yes, healthcare workers (typically women) are getting a lot more work during this time, but they are also the most exposed industry sector imaginable. While everyone else is running away from the infected people, healthcare workers are running towards them. That’s scary stuff.
If one nurse or doctor on a shift contracts the virus, that’s a whole fleet of medical professionals that are out for 2 weeks or more. Not to mention, they will all have to be replaced somehow, leaving the healthcare system very, very strained.
Unpaid Care with Very Little Share
One of the many flow-on effects from the pandemic has been the increased need for unpaid care.
As the virus started to breathe down the neck of our society, childcare centres were forced to close, schooling was relocated to the home and residents were taken out of care facilities in fear of an outbreak.
Even the most independent of elderly people needed a hand here and there to perform their daily errands as they are at greater risk if exposed to COVID-19.
As we know, women already tend to perform the majority of unpaid care duties. According to this study performed by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WEGA), women on average spend 64.4% of their total work hours doing unpaid care work. Men, on the other hand, spend an average of 36.1% of their total work hours on unpaid care work.
Women, in fact, represent 70% of unpaid primary carers for children and 56.1% of unpaid carers for the elderly, people with a disability or a long-term health condition.
See? Now it all makes sense as to why more women tend to work part-time.
Unfortunately, during this time of crisis, where the need for unpaid care is tenfold, women don’t just get to continue along with their current way of life. Oh no. They’re stepping up even more so to provide the extra level of unpaid care required. Once again, we can go deeper into the reasoning for that, but it’s a topic for another time.
So, not only are women performing their regular care duties, but they are also:
- Assisting with home-schooling
- Caring for their children all day, every day, with zero time away (and yes, that means countless interruptions while trying to perform other tasks)
- Cleaning more than ever since the house is inhabited 24/7
- Providing additional assistance for elderly parents, relatives and friends including grocery shopping, meal preparation etc.
This is all while they work their regular paid jobs (if they have been lucky enough to keep them and not had to reduce their hours due to the increased responsibility) and deal with the mental anguish that comes with seemingly endless isolation.
This is an unbelievable amount to take on. Actually, it’s way too much. Period.
If it’s Good for Equality, It’s Good for the Economy
If the financial and social implications faced by women during COVID-19 are not enough to have you clutching your pearls and having a renewed fire for gender equality (I hope it is though), then take a look at the economic impacts.
If no immediate action is taken, and the gender regressive trend from the last few months continues, the global GDP growth will be $1 trillion less in 2030 than if women’s unemployment rate matched that of men’s in each sector.
It could actually be even worse than this if factors such as increased childcare burdens, attitudinal bias or reduced public and private spending on education or childcare services cause women to leave the labour market permanently.
However, if more action was taken to combat gender inequality now, we could actually avoid the severe GDP loss. We could, in fact, add $13 trillion to the global GDP in 2030 instead. That is an 11% improvement compared to the ‘do nothing’ scenario.
Just to give you some perspective.
In short, we need to act sooner rather than later. Women everywhere are feeling the brunt of the pandemic and it’s just not sustainable. On top of that, it’s socially irresponsible and economically unintelligent.
But what do we do?
Research performed by McKinsey Global Institute has established a clear link between gender equality in society and gender equality in work. Unfortunately, the latter cannot be achieved without the former coming first.
There are a lot of systematic changes that need to be made. However, we all have a role to play in shifting the societal view and treatment of women, especially as business leaders. These include, but are not limited, to:
- Introducing family-friendly policies, including flexible working options and part-time positions to support workers that are experiencing the burden of extra caregiving. That goes for during the pandemic, and beyond.
- Taking active measures to change societal norms about who bears care responsibilities. For example, take the opportunity to have open conversations about the topic and actively offer and encourage male staff members to take paternity leave.
- Creating work environments that are inclusive, safe and comfortable for all genders, especially in male-dominated industries.
- Providing equal opportunity for employment, salary and promotion.
Although there is virtually nothing good about this virus, what it has done is shine a light on the apparent need for gender equality. Yes, we are making improvements, but it isn’t enough at this point. We as a society need to dig deeper and work harder because it’s not just women who are bearing the brunt of it, it’s our entire economy.