The COVID-19 pandemic appeared seemingly out of nowhere, threatening our way of life, our jobs, and of course our health overnight.
And while we’ve slowly but surely adjusted to the new normal, there’s one group who’s feeling the social, political and economic effects more than others: women.
According to the United Nations’ gender policy briefing, women across the globe are experiencing a disproportionate effect because they generally earn less, save less, have less secure jobs, and are more likely to live in poverty. In the UK, the Financial Times points out, women typically carry out 60% more unpaid household labour (read: hoovering and washing up last night’s dishes) than their male counterparts.
It’s a troublesome statistic, but one that’s bandied around liberally: women do so much more housework than men, that those who have jobs are essentially working double shifts. You get home exhausted from the office, ready to crash on the couch with Netflix and a takeaway, and you’ve got to get straight back to ‘work’, ironing, changing the beds, mopping the floor and cleaning the bathroom. It’s not hard to see how that’s like working two jobs. Add in the gender pay gap – which currently sits at 17.3% in the UK – and women get a pretty rough deal.
And remember: this is the situation at the best of times.
So when we’re all crammed inside in lockdown, with children to be homeschooled, laundry to be washed and clutter to be dealt with, this burden multiplies. Women are suffering more acutely than men, and as the lockdown extends relentlessly week on week, the danger is that we’re turning back the clock on decades of progress towards gender equality.
The question we need to be asking is: what can be done about this disproportionate effect?
Well, it’s not like this situation has arisen solely from ingrained sexism on the part of our husbands and partners.
The reality is far more complex, and comes down in part to practicalities.
According to British government figures, women are far more likely to work part-time than men. Of all employed women, 40% work part-time, while only 13% of employed men work part-time. So when a family is trying to arrange the practical elements of homeschooling, and one partner (in heterosexual relationships, usually the man) earns far more, it’s understandable that the higher paid partner’s job becomes the priority.
Mitigating the negative effect that COVID-19 has had on women will require action on both a macro and micro level.
At the top, we’ll need political intervention – both in the UK and across the globe – to ensure that women’s rights are enshrined in law. Previous global health crises like Zika and Ebola showed that while men and women both experienced reduced earnings while the situation was ongoing, “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s outcome.”
As more and more countries are led by women – New Zealand, Finland, Germany, and Denmark – broader perspectives are being taken into account at national level. Governments are gradually realising that the burden of homeschooling children and caring for elderly relatives lies disproportionately on women’s shoulders, and policy change to account for this distortion will help ensure future crisis situations don’t widen the gender gap even further.
On an individual level, communication within families is key. Couples can and should discuss how to ensure equality when it comes to household chores, and find ways to work around each person’s work commitments and responsibilities.
A good way to start is to measure the amount of time each person is spending on housework – the results may surprise you. This weekend, as you’re going about your day inside, note down everything you do each half hour. At the end of the day, compare notes, and see if one of you has done substantially more housework while the other enjoys a beer and a Zoom quiz with mates. If you’re not happy with the task split, make adjustments until you find a solution that suits everyone – after all, it should be a team effort.
As a woman, take responsibility for your financial wellbeing, and do your research as to how to build up savings and invest your money. Recent stats in the UK show that only around 30% of investors are women. If the gender investing gap is to be closed off in the near future, women need to take the leap to invest their hard-earned cash. Learn the difference between equities, bonds, deposit and investment accounts. Make sure you’ve got a solid pension plan, and that you’re regularly adding to a savings fund that you can dip into as and when you need to in future crisis situations. If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s to focus on the things we can control and to make peace with what we can’t – take the opportunity now to financially empower yourself and give your overall wellbeing a real boost.