Despite the amplification of the role of women in business and society during the COVID-19 pandemic, women have suffered from increases in domestic violence, employability bias and increased workloads. Does this mean a U-turn on the road to gender equality? Yok Yun Angela Low, Trinity Business School, explores.
The extent to which COVID-19 impacted our lives is probably one we could have never imagined. The virus is certainly a force to be reckoned with, posing a more dangerous threat to people over the age of 60, with health conditions, diabetes, and/or conditions that affect their immune systems (World Health Organization, 2020). It has been stated that COVID-19 has been the deadliest of all 21st-century viruses, and as of writing, the coronavirus has taken away more than 2.6 million lives globally, with almost 120.5 million confirmed cases (The Straits Times, 2020; Worldometer, 2021). On top of the high death rates and even greater rates of infection, billions of lives were affected in many other ways.
In almost a matter of days, people’s lives changed drastically. The economy plunged, with an estimated global gross domestic product (GDP) drop of 4.5% due to the pandemic (Duffin, 2020). Stock markets have also seen drastic declines. The FTSE plummeted 14.3% in 2020, its worst performance since 2008, and the Dow Jones reported its greatest-ever single-day fall of almost 3,000 points on 16 March 2020 (Duffin, 2020; Jones, Palumbo and Brown, 2020). With the worsening economy comes the inevitable wave of retrenchments, and those that could still keep their jobs found themselves working from home, a situation rather unfamiliar to many.
The role of women in businesses and societies has actually been amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, what COVID-19 really showed and exacerbated were the clear disparities between groups of people (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020; Ku and Brantley, 2020; Menon, 2021). While many had to stay home to socially isolate, it is admittedly a lot more comfortable to stay locked at home in a big house than in a cramped space, where the rates of infection are potentially higher. While 42% of the US labour force had the opportunity to work from home, 33% are not working, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the worsening economy, and 26%, mostly essential workers, had to work on-site (Wong, 2020). People who cross borders daily for work find themselves pressured to choose between a stable income or valuable time with their families (Ku and Brantley, 2020). Such heightened disparities can also be observed between women and men, from all walks of life.
Before delving deeper into how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the gender gap, it is important to first understand what gender equality (or lack thereof) looked like pre-pandemic.
The state of gender equality pre-COVID
Historically, women have been seen as the ‘Other’. Famous philosopher and political activist, Simone de Beauvoir, asserts that women are not considered to be autonomous because humanity is male, and men define women in relation to himself, and not in herself (De Beauvoir et al., 2015). Society views man as being the Subject and the Absolute, while woman is the Other. Therefore, a woman is the inessential in front of the essential, and is nothing other than what a man decides.
Despite recent progress, we still have not been able to reach satisfactory levels of gender equality. Women still earn less than men, even when taking into consideration the type of employment, qualifications, and experience (Elsesser, 2019). Women take up to three times more unpaid work than men do. Slightly less than six percent of women hold CEO positions in American companies, and there are as many as seven times as many male executive officers than female executive officers (Cahn, 2021). Globally, it is estimated that one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, which further infringes their economic opportunities (World Health Organization, 2017).
The emergence of COVID-19 has only hindered the progress of gender equality and exponentially increased the burden women carry on their backs for their household and society.
COVID-19 and the increase in intimate partner violence rates
Globally, more than 30% of women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) and the economic costs of such violence ranges from one to four percent of the global GDP (Ravindran and Shah, 2020). This is because such violence has detrimental impacts on female labour market participation, earnings, mental health, child health, and household consumption. It has been reported that up to 60% of IPV survivors lose their jobs as a result of IPV, and 77% reported that their harm-doer has interfered with their employment (Ruíz et al., 2020). In the United States alone, the estimated costs of IPV in terms of medical care and the decline of productivity is estimated at almost US$6 billion each year (Ravindran and Shah, 2020).
However, the rates of violence against women around the world have increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns (Ravindran and Shah, 2020). UN Women has referred to this as the “shadow pandemic”. In India, there was a 131% increase in domestic violence reported in May 2020 in districts that saw the strictest lockdown measures relative to districts that had the least strict measures. In the US, there was a 10% to 27% increase in domestic violence reporting during the lockdown weeks in comparison to the previous weeks. Peru also saw an increase in domestic violence call rates in states with more restrictive lockdown measures, while Mexico City saw an increase in IPV calls requesting psychological services.
Considering how much IPV has already impacted the global economy pre-COVID, it is without a doubt that such costs have magnified significantly in relation to the steep increase in IPV cases during the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns. Sharma and Borah (2020) reported that the increase in IPV cases towards women during the pandemic required governments to take action and arrange for safeguarding policies, thus demanding economic investments. Furthermore, the adverse effects of IPV on physical and mental health, meant that countries were losing a productive workforce that may otherwise contribute to the already faltering economy.
The dilemma faced and sacrifices taken
The role of women in businesses and societies has been amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A large number of women are serving on the frontlines against the pandemic, making up approximately 70% of the healthcare workforce globally, exposing them to a greater risk of infection (OECD, 2020). Even though they are underrepresented among physicians, dentists, and pharmacists, women make up an overwhelming 85% of nurses and midwives globally. Women also make up over 90% of the long-term care (LTC) workforce. Although all health and social care workers are facing immense demands due to the pandemic, women care workers are likely to be disproportionately more impacted. This is because many of them will have to choose, or are required to, isolate to minimise the possibility of passing the infection to family members. Therefore, it is difficult for women in these industries to fulfil their professional roles and unpaid responsibilities at home.
Globally, women already carry out up to ten times more work than men do (OECD, 2020). However, with the travel restrictions, home quarantines, closures of schools and day-cares, and increased risks faced by elderly relatives, women are taking on additional burdens such as taking care of their children and elderly relatives; even when both women and their respective partners are confined at home. Although social norms could be a reason for this additional burden women will have to uphold, the existing structure of the workforce also contributes greatly to this (Lewis, 2020).
In such situations, people tend to look at things from a practical perspective (Lewis, 2020). Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility to take on these additional responsibilities? More often than not, it is women who are paid less and/or have more flexibility. In the UK, 40% of employed women work part-time, in comparison to only 13% of men. In heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to earn less, meaning that if obstacles come along, it will make more financial sense for women to give up their jobs rather than their higher-earning male partner.
Single parents face even harder circumstances (Lewis, 2020). How can they financially support their family while taking care of them too? In the UK, one in four families is headed by a single parent, with over 90% of them being headed by women. The closure of schools will, inevitably, make their lives more difficult.
Disparities further amplified
On average, women across the OECD spend more than 4 hours on unpaid work per day; 2 hours more per day than men (OECD, 2020). Gender gaps in unpaid work are often larger in emerging economies.
Most of the women’s unpaid work goes towards taking care of their children, with women spending over 35 minutes every day on childcare activities, more than double the amount of time men spend on childcare activities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to amplify women’s unpaid work burdens (OECD, 2020). The widespread closure of educational facilities will not only increase the amount of time that parents must spend on supervising their children, but a large majority of this additional burden is likely to fall on women. Furthermore, any additional time spent at home due to the stay-home measures is likely to result in increased routine housework, which is often burdened by women.
Has progress in gender equality come to a complete halt?
The COVID-19 pandemic, on a social level, has highlighted the importance of women’s role in businesses and society. With women trying to balance the responsibilities of their professional and personal lives, partners living with women are being forced to come to terms with the fact that, indeed, their women counterparts are sacrificing more. The rise in IPV cases during the pandemic has not only resulted in a greater amount of associated costs in the economy, but also the increased awareness about its impact on mental health and productivity.
It is not to say that all the progress being made to bridge the gender gap has been undone. Most women still have their legislative rights, access to approachable avenues to seek assistance, and can still attend school. The formal structures set in place to help expedite the progress of gender equality are still present. However, it seems that COVID-19 has revived, or perhaps evoked a deep-set, and often unconscious societal expectation and norm, that demand women, as the Other, to carry additional household burdens.
Therefore, it is important to challenge such ideologies, should we wish to see further progress on closing the gender gap. It is important to recognise the value women bring to their households, workplace, and society. It is important to start working towards seeing women and men as equals, rather than in relation to each other, as the Absolute and the Other. Only then can we stop another social pandemic like this from happening.
A full list of references used in this article can be found on page 161, Global Voice magazine #18.
- Link up with Lok Yun Angela Low via LinkedIn
- Download this feature and others in the special student issue of Global Voice magazine #18
- Study at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
- Website: www.council-business-society.org
- Twitter: @The_CoBS
- LinkedIn: the-council-on-business-&-society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
In 2020, member schools now number 7, all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.