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The impacts of Covid-19 are gendered – but there may be cause for hope

JULIA GILLARD: This could be an opportunity for progress, not retreat, on gender equality

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At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the gender perspective being discussed was that the disease kills more men than women. That is a statistic we should never forget.

However, as the weeks of various forms of lockdown around the world have gone by, the gender discussion has broadened. Day by day, it has become clearer that this crisis exacerbates underlying inequalities.

The roll call of how these pre-existing gender disadvantages are being compounded makes distressing reading.

So far over 1.5 billion children globally have been impacted by school shutdowns. In earlier epidemics like Ebola, the most marginalised children, especially the poorest girls, never returned to school, while early marriage, teen pregnancy and child labour rates skyrocketed. The Global Partnership for Education, which I chair, has mounted the biggest response to date to prevent the rise of an out-of-school Covid-19 generation, but more resources are urgently needed.

More generally, we went into this crisis knowing there is a gender difference to extreme poverty, so we can predict that of the 265 million people estimated by the World Food Programme to go hungry after the pandemic, women will be disproportionately affected.

The story is no better when it comes to the world of work: the job categories that formed the first wave of unemployment – hospitality, non-food retail, the beauty industry – are largely filled by women. And while many of the essential workers who are bravely going out and keeping society running are drawn from traditionally male occupations like bus and truck drivers, police officers and postal workers, globally, women make up 70 per cent of those on the frontlines of the health and social care sectors. 

But those who aren’t out at their usual places of work, or aren’t able to work at all, may also be facing greater physical harm. The key message delivered around the world has been “stay safe, stay home”. However, for many women and children, the danger of domestic violence lurks. Risks have been increased by the intensity of long periods together. Rapidly rising alcohol sales would also be having an impact. Three weeks into the UK’s lockdown, calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline were 49 per cent higher than normal. The longer the lockdown goes on, the more greater numbers of women will need such help.  

Addressing this list calls for short-term action. Out-of-school children and those at risk at home need help now. All frontline workers, male and female, need the best protective equipment. Those out of work need income support and the benefit of government programmes to help them get a new job when economies get back into gear.

But what about the longer term? Might this crisis be the catalyst for more positive gendered change? I think the answer is yes, but there is a need for careful planning to harness the benefits and mitigate the risks.

First, the move to virtual workplaces could create a whole new set of norms for many occupations. There is now a clear operating example of how we can work effectively in remote and flexible settings. This acceleration and mainstreaming of online and at-home working arrangements should benefit women’s careers and improve work-life balance for all employees.  

To ensure we embed a positive trajectory, employers around the world will need to consider how to take the best of what has been learned in this period and consolidate it into their future policies.

Unfortunately, not every new practice being contemplated has a positive gender impact. For example, there have been whispers of large corporations cutting the hours or salaries of primary carers with children at home while schools and childcare centres are closed. And experience tells us that the primary carer is likely to be a woman. Equally alarming are discussions of suspending gender targets until business profitability returns to pre-pandemic levels.

To grab the positive and repudiate the negative we have to be pushing employers now to keep gender impacts front of mind. We especially cannot allow the slow progress we are making on gender equality to be reversed.

Second, there are some indications that because families are in lockdown together, new patterns of domestic responsibility are emerging. Where there are two caregivers who are working from home, there is an increased opportunity to share domestic load. The challenge is how to spread this approach to more families and not revert to more unequal and gendered distributions of domestic labour once the crisis abates.

Third, the pandemic has brought into stark relief the reliance we place on our generally under-paid, women-led professions: health, social, disability and aged care, as well as education.

We need to ensure this clarity of appreciation leads to increased respect, as well as pay equality. In my home country, Australia, childcare has gone from being more expensive than some private schooling to being provided free by the government. While this certainly highlights the essential role early childhood educators play in Australian society, I wonder if the educators themselves, at the forefront of our economy and facing the virus, feel valued enough. One of the lowest-paid professions, 96 per cent of the sector is female. The situation in the UK is similar. Low pay within female-dominated professions such as this must be addressed.

If we collect the evidence and surge our advocacy, we can progress gender equality during this difficult time, and build on what has been learned when we reach the post-pandemic stage. We can celebrate and share new norms, ensure there are strategies to provide continued education for our most vulnerable, and work towards a fairer society. Many of the immediate impacts of Covid-19 may be negative for women and girls, but its long-term legacy need not be.

Julia Gillard is a former Prime Minister of Australia and chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London and the Global Partnership for Education.