Culture

Think disease doesn’t discriminate? The gender bias of COVID-19

It’s time to consider the impact the pandemic is having on women

By Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia for Future Women

Culture

It’s time to consider the impact the pandemic is having on women

By Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia for Future Women

Google ‘Mother’s Day’ images and you will be bombarded with flowers and greeting cards as well as pictures of domestic bliss. Happy children, sparkling homes, well stocked kitchens and home-made goodies surrounding blissful mothers staring adoringly at their partners and children.

But like an iceberg or a duck swimming in the pond, there is an awful lot of paddling going on underneath the surface. Kitchens don’t stock themselves and we all know children need assistance with everything.

If COVID-19 and its requisite isolation has taught us anything, it is just how much hard work goes into raising, educating and caring for children and also how relentless and thankless housekeeping is.  It only really gets noticed when it isn’t done.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s timely to consider the impact that COVID-19 is having on women.

Women are more likely than men to be in precarious employment and ineligible for JobKeeper payments, there are significantly more single-parents who are women, and women already retire with around half the superannuation savings of men, a situation that will only be exacerbated if women access early super withdrawals.

But out of this crisis have come some highpoints for gender equality: our society is starting to properly appreciate what is commonly known as ‘women’s work’ – valuing professions such as nursing and teaching.

The UN estimates that, globally, women make up about 70% of the health and social sector workforce.

Australia’s workforce is similarly highly gender segregated. According to the ABS, the industries in Australia with the highest proportion of women are ‘health care and social assistance’ (79%) and ‘education and training’ (72%). That is: doctors, nurses, teachers, school staff, healthcare ancillary staff, disability and aged care workers.

As others have pointed out, lower pay in many of these occupations contributes significantly to the gender pay gap. And it is certainly our hope this Mother’s Day, that in the post-COVID-19 recovery this ‘recognition’ will translate into better financial compensation for these industries and occupations.

But there is another form of ‘women’s work’ that is also becoming more visible through this crisis: the invisible work women do at home. The cooking, the cleaning, the caring, and as DCA has previously highlighted, increasingly, the schoolwork as well.

With more people working remotely, all this ‘unseen’ work that women do at home is suddenly being seen.

Research tells us that giving men access to parental leave is an effective mechanism for promoting greater gender equality in the domestic sphere. So, what about crisis-induced remote working?

A recent paper from U.S. and German academics explored the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality. The authors estimated that, due to the gender split of occupations in the U.S. economy, more men than women may suddenly find themselves working remotely, and by virtue of the fact that schools (and childcare centres in the U.S.) have closed, those men would suddenly find themselves responsible for childcare in a way they had never been before. The authors go on to note that:

“The literature on policy changes that engineer a similar change (e.g., “daddy months” and other forms of paternity leave) suggest that such a reallocation of duties within the household is likely to have persistent effects on gender roles and the division of labor.”[i]

That is, because of these changes, there will be long term impacts not only on who does the childcare, but also the division of household labour.

How, then, do we make sure that after this crisis has stabilised, we don’t just snap-back to (gender-inequality) business as usual?

Employers have a role to play in normalising flexible work for all employees once the immediate health challenges subside. But so too do individuals in families. Men who have taken on extra childcare and household duties during this time, need to think about this as a permanent shift. Now that they have ‘seen’ the work that happens, they can no longer ignore it.

And for the next generation, hopefully these changes will be normalised. Research shows that when (heterosexual) men grow up in a family where their mother is working, they are more likely to marry a woman who also works. So hopefully, all children who grow up in households with a father who takes on a more equal share of household labour will just expect that of their future partners.

This Mother’s Day let’s take the time to think about what we can all do to embed the very best from the COVID-19 crisis – because the old ways of entrenched gender inequality don’t serve any of us very well.