A new deal for women
31st March 2021
Authors: Marcia Texler Segal (Indiana University Southeast, USA) & Vasilikie (Vicky) Demos (University of Minnesota-Morris, USA)
It has been widely reported that 2.3 million women, as compared to 1.8 million men, have dropped out of the U.S. workforce since the pandemic began. Attempting to understand these statistics and the impact of COVID-19 uncovers the gendered scaffolding of American society.
While there are some extra twists in the US story, much of what we learn is relevant to other countries as well. All the things that have occupied gender scholarship are now evident from front page headlines. These include the relationship between gendered divisions of paid and unpaid labour, the impacts of attitudes and beliefs about gender, the connection between child- and elder-care and the wider economy, the implicit model of the ideal employee as the (white) cisgender, heterosexual man married to a woman who stays at home – at least part-time, and the expectation that individuals or families will have the ability to deal with crises on their own.
Research demonstrates that attitudes toward gender that make women responsible for what happens in the home and leave men in charge of public matters are becoming less rigid with each generation. It is unclear, however, that behaviour follows. The gendered division of labour prevails. While men are assuming more childcare responsibilities, women are still in charge of household organisation and, when someone has to leave paid work or juggle paid work with childcare, as has occurred with schools and childcare facilities closed during the pandemic, the responsibility falls to women take up the slack.
There is a gendered division of labour in the workforce as well. Women, especially minority women, are concentrated in the service industries including hospitality and supportive roles in healthcare. Women entrepreneurs generally own microbusinesses such as hair salons where they interact directly with the public. These jobs are poorly paid, cannot be performed from home, and are the ones most likely to have been eliminated or placed under strain during the pandemic. During the pandemic workers in these industries either have no income or are forced to work under conditions that expose them to risk. The pandemic also impacts those women fortunate enough to have positions that allow them to work from home. Some may have found that though they can afford to pay for childcare, it is unavailable, leaving them stretched between their paid work, taking care of the house and in the absence of in-person schooling for their children, having the responsibility of supervising their on-line lessons. In addition, some may have reached the difficult decision of leaving the paid workforce, thereby leaving them vulnerable to negative effects on career advancement.
In addition to the precariousness of some kinds of work, what the pandemic has laid bare is how dependent society is on the paid and unpaid labour of women and the relationship between the two. Obvious policy recommendations that can be applied even before the pandemic ends include provisions to support workers whose jobs are threatened including those who leave the workforce voluntarily in order to provide care for family members. The pandemic has revealed a number of gaps in the social structure. A new deal, or social policy, is called for, one that allows for paid family leave from the workforce for both women and men, government sponsorship or support through taxes of quality child- and elder-care, and a re-examination of work-life balance in the public and private sectors could be initial steps.
Co-Editors: Marcia Texler Segal (Indiana University Southeast, USA) and Vasilikie (Vicky) Demos (University of Minnesota-Morris, USA)
Journal: Advances in Gender Research