Work, family, and women’s rights during the pandemic

8th March 2021

29th March 2021

Author: Chika Shinohara, St. Andrew’s University, Osaka, Japan

For women the COVID-19 pandemic has meant loss of income, unemployment, overwork for no more pay, work-related discrimination, and an increased childcare and housework burden. So many have faced further inequality and injustice. But in this pandemic, we can see that despite being time-poor and sleep-deprived, women have been standing up for their rights.

The Economist’s 'Glass-Ceiling Index' has informed us that women, even in the world’s wealthier countries, have a long way to go before achieving equality in the workplace. The social environment for working women is better in the Nordic countries, above-average in a few European and Oceanic countries, but slightly below-average in the United States, Israel, Britain, and some other European countries. The bottom among the listed OECD countries are the same in East Asia every year: Japan and South Korea.

During the Pandemic, women in the Far East, just as in other parts of the globe, were required to rearrange their work-family life. Many women in Northeast Asia had no choice but to take leave, for many unpaid, when childcare facilities, schools, and elderly care homes were closed for coronavirus. Some were lucky to have days (or months) off and able to come back to work; others ended up quitting jobs or being fired, as many women were temporary workers in the service sector without job security. Healthcare workers were thanked for their professional work as critical fighters against the virus. At the same time, nurses and elderly care workers experienced prejudice and discrimination such as being told to ‘stay away’ by colleagues, shop clerks, and even by family members, with their children rejected by nursery schools. Single mothers were particularly vulnerable. Domestic violence toward women and girls has increased just as in other regions. Regrettably, loneliness and mental health problems born from the pandemic have raised suicide rates of younger women in Japan and South Korea.

Working crazy hours at home without childcare, was the reality experienced by full-time working parents with professional careers everywhere in the world during the Pandemic. Many such workers may not have lost their jobs; yet they have had to cope with a heavy workload alongside having young children at home - monitoring little ones studying on-line while working at your computer, web-conferencing with colleagues or customers. More “work” does not simply mean more time for business or employers, but includes additional “PC apps” prep tasks; after all, no thought is given to which applications kids are using for school, and which their parents are using for work; all the platforms – Zoom, Teams, Webex, Meet, etc. – are different and need to be updated and prepared. Who in reality seems to be getting the software ready in advance for their children? App/platform administration, full-time childcare, virus prevention management, overwork, multi-tasking; the exhausting list for a working mother at home in the Pandemic goes on.

‘Work-Digital Tech’ nightmare with Covid-19, thus, has been haunting many mothers working online at home in the Far East. Professional working families in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand are more likely to have care workers living in or working full-time at home to help with the house and family care. In Japan, however, there is less likelihood of receiving such generous support. Many schools for kids, as well as elderly care facilities, close and open, and then close again if the virus infections break out. It falls to the working mother to fill in the gaps, chronically overworked and lacking any time for rest; women in Japan and South Korea have shown the largest gender disparities in sleep hours and housework responsibilities. There has been little time for many women to comprehend the unfolding nightmare, and to push to change its unfairness.

So let us take a moment to appreciate being girls and women in the midst of Covid-19. Social movements for women’s rights have emerged in the Far East against underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, healthcare worker discrimination, women’s poverty particularly of single mothers and children, unfairness and injustices experienced by migrant women. Women during the pandemic have also joined protests not just for their own rights, but also for others in the wider society. Marriage and family rights movements have grown for the LGBTQ minorities in East Asian cities; for those women forced to give up their names and adopt men’s for legal recognition of the marital status in Tokyo. Black Lives Matter rallies have taken place in Osaka, Taipei, Seoul, Bangkok, and more. Young people’s movements for civil rights and political transparency have grown in the Southeast. Women in the Far East, whether in the north or south, have shared challenges against gender inequalities and injustices that we stand up for change.


Author: Chika Shinohara, Ph.D. is a sociologist and associate professor at St. Andrew’s University, JAPAN. Her publications have focused on healthcare in globalisation, employment rights and gender representations, work harassment, and law. Previously, she was a visiting scholar at Chulalongkorn University (CUSRI), postdoc fellow at National University of Singapore (Soc & JS), and research assistant at the Minnesota Population Center and University of Minnesota.