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28 December 2021

Fixing a broken model: how can the EU address the stark gender inequalities laid bare by Covid?

Esther Lynch

The EU must address longstanding failures to tackle gender discrimination and create a fairer social and economic model

EU News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

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Esther Lynch is the Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation

Across Europe, women have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic due to longstanding failures to tackle gender discrimination and create a fairer social and economic model. The paradigm guiding our economies for the past four decades has led to a crisis of insecurity, hitting women hardest and threatening to reimpose the gender stereotypes of the 1950s.

Hard-won gains of recent decades are under threat, due in part to a creeping backlash against women’s rights which was already under way in some countries.

If anyone believed that gender equality was close to being achieved, the pandemic has laid bare the realities. Systemic inequalities that are built into numerous aspects of women’s lives – from pay, employment and work-life balance, to safety at work and in the home – have been reinforced.

Grossly undervalued

Covid-19 has demonstrated how vital the jobs predominantly done by women are for society and the economy. Yet their work remains grossly undervalued.

Women make up 76 per cent of the 49 million care workers in the European Union (EU). This is an underestimation as it does not take into account domestic helpers, often migrant women and women of colour, who tend to be irregularly employed with low wages (82 per cent of this group are among the 20 per cent lowest paid), poor working conditions, and who are particularly exposed to violence and harassment.

Carers fill some of the most undervalued, underpaid, and precarious jobs in the EU. More than half the personal carers in health services are among the 30 per cent lowest-paid workers. Healthcare workers have faced long working hours, leading to problems reconciling work and family life and generating more stress, anxiety, and depression.

This is the product of inadequate funding for public services – including health and social care – with women forced into part-time or insecure jobs as the only way to combine work with care for their families.

In addition to carers, the pandemic has affected women across a wide range of sectors. Eurofound research shows that low-paid women workers, specifically women working in person-to-person service sectors, have been worst hit by employment losses.

The double shift

Over the last year, in working families with children under 12, women in Europe have spent on average 62 hours a week on childcare and 23 hours on housework, compared with 36 and 15 hours respectively for men. Eurofound reported that women (29 per cent) were almost twice as likely as men (16 per cent) to say they found it hard to concentrate on their jobs because of care duties.

There is a direct link between the unequal division of unpaid care in households and gender inequalities in the labour market. Dealing with the bulk of unpaid care work, including its mental burden, hinders women’s access to, and ability to remain in, work. In most countries where unpaid care is shared more equally between women and men, women have higher employment rates and gender pay gaps are lower.

In the wake of hybrid post-Covid workplaces, there might just be an additional gender segregation around the corner, with women opting for telework to cope with care responsibilities and men being more present in workplaces and office spaces, planning their next career step. There is a real risk that women might miss out twice: being traditionally sidelined from work-related social events and activities, and now less likely to even be physically present at the workplace.

A "shadow pandemic"

Another alarming consequence of the pandemic has been an increase in violence against women, girls, trans and non-binary people. About 50 women die as a result of domestic violence every week in the EU, and this has increased during lockdowns. Employers, legislators and law-enforcement bodies across Europe must urgently step up their efforts to prevent violence and harassment at work, as they are not doing enough. In a survey of European women trade union leaders, 84 per cent of respondents said that employers had not updated their policies to combat online harassment associated with telework. 83 per cent believed their country’s laws to tackle violence and harassment at work, including online abuses, were not being adequately enforced.

What can the European Union do?

The EU must take urgent steps to stop the erosion of women’s rights, prevent a return to the broken model of the past and ensure that post-pandemic Europe learns the lessons of earlier mistakes.

In terms of responding to increased rates of gender-based violence, some countries claim to have put in place additional measures, but others have used the cover of Covid-19 to launch attacks on women’s rights. The European Trade Union Confederation is calling on all Member States to urgently ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 190 on violence and harassment. Every additional day that EU institutions spend clarifying procedural questions on the ratification of the convention means yet more women are left exposed to violent partners in their home office and/or to managers that abuse online tools to facilitate harassment, including of a sexual nature.

The upcoming legislative initiative to prevent and combat gender-based violence, as announced by the European Commission, can make a difference, but only if there is a strong focus on the world of work and adequate scope for trade unions’ actions are included, since there is a clear workplace dimension to domestic violence targeting women and girls.

In terms of tackling the undervaluation of women’s paid and unpaid work, which has been exacerbated during the pandemic, as a baseline, more support for trade unions is needed. When women join their trade union they can bargain for increased pay, more security, training, health and safety, a say over working hours, fairer promotions, more paid leave and a decent pension.

Women workers must enjoy the pay, conditions, and status they deserve. Covid-19 cannot be allowed to leave a legacy of less equal pay, particularly as most essential and frontline workers are women. It cannot be acceptable to refer to these workers as “low-skilled”: the vital role they have played during the pandemic, for businesses, society and the economy, calls for a systematic re-evaluation of their pay, so that their true contribution is fully taken into account and their skills recognised.

Member States need to step up their efforts to make high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare available for all children and parents. This includes improved pay and conditions for workers in childcare.

If properly amended, the European Commission’s proposal for a directive on equal pay for equal work of equal value will be a much-needed game-changer for female workers, allowing for a rethinking of female-dominated jobs, in addition to properly enforced rules on pay transparency. It is only through empowering trade unions and supporting collective bargaining that equal pay will become a reality: eradicating the gender pay gap cannot be placed on the shoulders of individual women workers.

There must be EU-wide rules on teleworking that offer workers a choice, and guarantee equal treatment as well as reimbursement for additional costs, health and safety insurance, support, and a genuine right to disconnect. Telework cannot be seen by governments as a solution to the care crisis.

The EU’s Directive on Work-life Balance must be fully implemented across Europe – with the involvement of trade unions – including good quality childcare available to all parents and paid time-off for family care. It must be seen as a baseline for improving women workers’ rights, particularly in terms of paid leave and rights to request flexible working arrangements.

Past, present, and future challenges call for an activist feminism that exposes abuses and works for robust solutions – a feminism global in its scale, ambition, and universal in its solidarity, dedicated to confronting some of the most pervasive structures of oppression.