Covid19 and the half-way house of gender equality

June 23, 2020

Author Articles


It is hard to know how to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular whether it is upending established patterns or merely a mirror reflecting them back at us. There are many things we might hope would change, not least inequalities between women and men. Mary Daly explores the ‘new normal’.

On the evidence available thus far, much has been made of women’s seemingly greater physical resilience to the pandemic. This has been interpreted to suggest that it is men who are bearing the main Covid-19 burden. My new book – Gender Inequality and Welfare States in Europe – underlines how this kind of fact hides deeper truths and that, if we want to uncover these deeper patterns, we should adopt a gender lens to examine how resources, experiences and attitudes vary for women and men.

The pandemic has brought some reversion to old roles

Looked at through this lens, it appears that, rather than being a great equaliser, lockdown is acting to reproduce some of the classic gender and other inequalities. The distribution of unpaid work between women and men is a powerful test of gender equality. In this regard, the pandemic has brought some reversion to old roles in many countries with the bulk of informal work, including supporting children’s remote education, falling to women. Two factors help to explain this. The first is beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. Even if it proves a short-term development, the reversion during the pandemic suggests that traditional gender attitudes still have a hold and that women as the caregivers continues to be seen to reflect naturally-rooted preferences. A second explanatory factor opens up questions about the version of equality that has prevailed and whether policy has worked hard enough and reached deeply enough to bring about change.

In my book – which predates the pandemic – I take a critical and penetrating look at gender equality across the countries of the European Union, asking what has been achieved and how. There have been significant developments: over the last 20 years more women than ever are in paid work and a greater number have access to some income of their own. There is also greater equality in the sharing of time and tasks between partners and parents and some of the more obvious forms of gender discrimination have been removed from the welfare system and employment.

Policy has played a key role in such outcomes as for periods of time gender equality has been a major concern of the welfare state, especially social and employment policies. My research finds that the predominant route or vision of gender equality has aimed for labour market integration for all women and continued high levels of employment for all men. The main differences among countries are actually ones of degree, in regard to how much they: a) exclusively focus on employment, b) emphasise full or part-time work for women and c) ‘soften’ child-care related burdens, by providing services, leaves and other supports.

Along with anti-discrimination measures, supportive policies have been put in place. Under the name of allowing a ‘work–life balance’, policies have sought to make it easier for both mothers and fathers to participate in both paid work and family life. It is from this set of ideas that we see a tide of countries introducing paid paternity leave and more generous parental leaves. These measures are welcome, being a counterpoint to the perspective that opening up the labour market to women is sufficient by itself to achieve gender equality. And they also have the merit of recognising that the distribution of paid and unpaid work between women and men is crucial to the chance of being employed.

But are they sufficient? My research suggests that many of the employment leaves that are in place are tokenistic – granting new fathers 10 days upon the birth of their child has no theory of change built into it, for example, and gives men no real incentive to change their everyday fathering practices. In a sense the reversion to traditional gender roles proves that these measures may not be cementing deeper change.

Accepting equality as synonymous with having a job or gender parity on boards has grave consequences. Why? For one thing it downplays other aspects of employment equality – like the conditions of work, chances of promotion, exposure to discrimination, all of which tend to be worse for women. Furthermore, it ignores the rest of people’s lives and especially what happens in regard to responsibilities and work in relation to keeping families and the home functioning. There is another set of consequences as well – focusing on jobs and the labour market as the motor of equality takes the pressure off the state and diverts attention from the potentially positive contribution of social policies. It was the state that mostly led the pursuit of gender equality and women have always relied on the state to a greater degree than men (for jobs, for services and for income). The state does not always put gender equality first though. When we take a critical look at measures that have been ‘sold’ to us as promoting gender equality in the last decade or so, we can see that sometimes the underlying agenda is to promote economic and employment growth rather than equality. Moreover, our welfare states are being reshaped in the image of supporting employment for all rather than being part of a broader vision around equality and social justice.

For a real alternative we have to reconsider how we value particular activities and institutions. Meriting a central place here is what the literature terms ‘care’: the commitment, work and engagement associated with maintaining families, personal relationships and social well-being. Feminist engagement has long identified this as essential to gender equality and has offered a vision of a society that sees inherent value in what is now treated as ‘unpaid work’. The activities and commitments we engage in to care for others, and especially those who are young and/or fragile, matter in their own right and have to be protected. There is a crucial role for the welfare state in all of this but it has to be a welfare state that sees itself as protecting incomes, avoiding poverty, caring for the most vulnerable and maintaining social standards.

If there is one good thing to come out of the pandemic it may be that the shock of it will act as a historical inflection point.

 We have certainly been given time to reflect upon our values and to reconnect with domestic life. But rather than just being ‘three months at home’, the pandemic may change economic structures. It is probable that a multi-earner household will be the best chance for economic survival/prosperity in the future. With job growth uncertain and low wage rates continuing, people and families will most likely have to combine incomes from different sources. Many sectors of the population may have less income and have to be more ingenious about how they secure income. It may also be that families will not be able to pay for services to replace work at home. So a different sharing model may be necessary. This will undoubtedly bring changes in how we work and how we care. But it may not bring the kind of fundamental rethinking and re-evaluation that my book suggests is necessary for a more equal and better society. For this we will have to continue to question the way things are and strive for them to be better.

Daly Gender

Gender Inequality and Welfare States in Europe, by Mary Daly (2020) is out now

Read chapter 8: Scoping a future research agenda free on Elgaronline




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