We often like to think of feminism and the movement for gender equality as linear progress: women got the right to vote in 1918 in the UK, could open their own bank account from the 1970s, and since then, things have gradually improved for women. And look how many things they are able to do now! This year, we’ve seen the first female vice president being elected in the US, the first female and first African Director-General of the WTO, a record number of female leaders in government and numerous women-led business success stories – especially in the Global North. Being a woman has never been easier, right?
It’s appealing to think of such social movements as linear progress because we often don’t want to face the reality that some things have actually stagnated, or even got worse. Especially if given setbacks happen outside of our horizon (which often means outside of Western developed democracies): international media barely covers it, and it is easy to tell ourselves that it is not happening to “us” – it is happening to “them”.
The past year saw many of these setbacks, too. Whether it’s abortion rights, the forced sterilisation of Uighur women or eradication of trans rights – numerous events that can hardly be described as “progress”. However, the main issue that has impacted probably almost all women and our fight towards gender equality across the world is – as you probably guessed it by now – Covid-19.
While Covid-19 has turned all of our lives upside down in many respects, in general, it impacted women disproportionately. This International Women’s Day, instead of taking part in the almost-compulsory, commercial activity of gifting flowers and celebrating progress embodied by a few incredible individuals, let’s take some time to review what the past year looked like for average women – and you might recognise some similarities with your own experience, too.
Low pay and job insecurity: women in the labour market
There are two main ways people’s jobs were affected by Covid in the past year: either by being laid off or having to cut hours, or by having to take on a large number of extra shifts due to increased demand. While the former did impact people regardless of ethnicity or gender, women tend to earn less, save less, and work in more insecure jobs than men across the globe and therefore are hit disproportionately by economic crises. They are also more likely to be in part-time jobs, on temporary contracts and zero-hour contracts, which offer little job security and are often paid at minimum wage. In some countries, like India women have been hit especially hard – with low labour market participation before, women were the first to lose their jobs, and now many have low to no financial independence. Additionally, in developing economies, the picture is even more gloomy – about 70% of women work in the informal economy and have less access to social protection or any job protection schemes put into place to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.
Increased demand in health and social care has also taken a toll on women, due to the gender imbalance among key workers.
In the UK, 84% of those working in social care are women, and around a quarter of all working women work as key workers, while only 18% of all men do.
In Italy and Spain, disproportionately more women healthcare workers got infected by Covid-19, according to the UN. And so the stress of being on the frontline of the global pandemic is very much put on women – often without fair monetary compensation.
While facing such difficulties at work, women have no rest at home either. Domestic work, including housework and childcare, have mostly been done by women even before Covid-19 hit – and let’s just say that it hasn’t improved since.
Carrying the burden: women at home
If you live in a mixed-gender household, regardless of where you are in the world, I’m almost completely certain that you either had disagreements or arguments about the amount of housework each member does – especially if you are a woman. According to Gallup and the Pew Research Centre, even in young American households, women tend to do more chores than men. And this gender gap in housework seems to persist throughout the pandemic.
Those with children are the most severely impacted, especially as many countries closed schools and nurseries for most of the year.
The Resolution Foundation shows that in heterosexual two-parent households, women were almost twice as likely to reduce their working hours (and therefore earnings) due to childcare and homeschooling needs, across all income groups.
The Shadow Pandemic
And while we all spend more time stuck at home, some of us, especially women, really get stuck at home in often abusive and violent environments. Before 2020, it was estimated that one in three women experience domestic abuse during their lifetime, and now many of them are trapped.
Covid-19 exacerbated this situation and induced a Domestic Violence epidemic: many who were already living in abusive environments now have to stay home in lockdown with their abuser and have even less contact with friends and families who could offer help.
Support services are also more difficult to access, and while some countries tried introducing new ways of supporting domestic violence victims, these initiatives fail to provide sufficient help to those in need.
With all these being said, there is value in celebrating achievements and those incredible figures whose activism and persistence helped the gender equality movement get this far. However, there is also value in reflecting on how your own experience of Covid-19 might differ from others’ – and here we haven’t even touched on other major issues such as managing grief or the surge of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism that significantly impacted women. Perhaps in a post-pandemic world, instead of gifting flowers, we’ll march together to continue our (non-linear) progress on these systematic issues (again).
Written by Bori Toth. Check out her latest pieces here!