Gender equality and the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at an event on gender equality and the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hosted by the General Secretariat of the Council on 8 March 2022.
Good afternoon everybody,
It is good to be here today to mark International Women’s Day with you, and to share with you our latest data on the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on gender equality.
Of course, we meet today in the context of a new crisis, which is absorbing all our thoughts.
I firmly believe that gender equality is central to the health and wealth of our countries. I reject claims that it is a luxury, only to be dealt with once we have addressed more ‘serious’ issues.
Yet, I have struggled to write this speech today.
Everything seems trivial compared to what is going on in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. It feels odd to be scrutinising the share of women in the workforce, considering the current situation.
Equality between women and men is one of the values of the European Union. It is written into our treaties.
While it is not a goal any EU country has achieved yet, some are starting to get close.
What’s certain, is that we’ve come a long way since 1957.
And equality doesn’t happen by chance: the fact that the EU is one of the most gender equal places in the world is a result of hard work. It is the result of laws, of campaigns, of individual bravery, and of so much more.
We therefore need to continue our work, as the progress we’ve made can be easily lost.
I’d therefore like to thank you for joining today, to take a look at what’s happened since the Covid-19 crisis hit, to speak about what we can do to protect everything we’ve gained, and to take a look at what we can do to go even further, to finally achieve equality between women and men.
So, what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic?
First, job losses at the beginning of the pandemic hit women harder than they did men. This is because many of the sectors most affected by the virus, such as hospitality and retail, are heavily staffed by women.
The move to temporary telework for millions no doubt saved many jobs and showed us the potential of a digital workforce.
Almost overnight, the workplace home and the workplace literally merged into one for millions of people.
But something that is at the core of what sets apart the experiences of women and men, is that the home can be one of worst places for equality.
One of the first, very sad stories to come out of the pandemic, was that of the spikes in domestic violence, which were happing in countries across the globe.
Unfortunately, data shows that the home is often the most dangerous place for a woman.
Globally, 58 % of women who are killed die at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. In the EU, more than a fifth of women have been physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner.
Natural disasters and other crisis situations often lead to more violence against women. Yet when the Covid-19 crisis hit, no EU country had a disaster plan in place that would enable them to quickly help victims.
Many governments did react and take action though, and my Institute found a number of good practices we hope will stay after the pandemic has finished.
Spain introduced a 24-hour WhatsApp service to provide victims with psychological counselling, while police in Ireland contacted anyone who had been a victim of domestic violence in the last few years to make sure they were ok.
Domestic violence is unacceptable because it causes human suffering and keeps women subordinate to men.
But it also has an economic price.
My Institute has conducted research that shows that violence against women costs the European Union almost 300 billion euros a year.
It is therefore great that the European Commission has today launched a proposal for a law to make sure women across the EU have equal protection from violence.
I’d like to now look at another way that women and men faced different consequences when the home and the workplace merged into one.
It is no secret that in every singly country in the EU, and I would venture to say in the world, women do the vast majority of childcare and housework.
During the pandemic, this type of work really exploded. Everyone was doing more: men as well as women.
However, our research shows that women still did much, much more.
On average, women across the EU have been doing some 36 hours of unpaid care work each week during the pandemic, which is almost 2,000 hours a year.
2,000 hours. To put that into context, that’s more or less what you give to a full-time job over the course of a year.
And even outside of crisis times, it is this extra work women are doing in the home that lies behind so many of the inequalities we just can’t seem to shift.
How much time women are able to give to their jobs, how often they are promoted, how much they earn and whether they are able to work at all, all this is linked to what is happening at home.
Unfortunately, there are now some worrying signals that the Covid crisis may be pushing more women out of the job market than before.
In 2021, for the first time in 17 years, the number of so-called economically inactive women increased. These are the women are not in paid work, nor looking for it. Before Covid, this figure had been dropping year on year in the EU.
Because women in every country in the EU still do more at home, we also need to be careful about how we manage telework as we recover from the pandemic.
We cannot allow telework to become dominated by mothers trying to care for children at the same time as doing their job, while fathers remain undisturbed in the office, building professional connections and taking up opportunities.
This would only widen all the inequalities we are already seeing in the workplace.
So, how do we put a stop to these worsening inequalities between women and men? I will highlight four main points.
The first change we need is in the home. To give men the opportunity to care for their children right from day 1, governments should earmark healthy amounts of parental leave for all fathers.
In a number of EU Member States, this has been done via various ‘use it or lose it’ goodies that parents receive if they share leave.
These kinds of policies boost the amount of time men spend looking after their children, and, in a virtuous cycle, normalise the idea of men as caregivers.
Their success has inspired the EU to include the approach in its Directive on work-life balance, which all EU countries must now implement.
Government should enable parents to spend time with their children, and they should enable them to lead fulfilling lives outside the home. That is why the second point I will highlight is the need for affordable, professional care services.
These need to exist for children, as well as for older people, and those with disabilities. Many people in the EU provide care not just for their children, but also for ageing parents. The need for these kinds of facilities will only get bigger as our continent ages.
Yet currently, our care infrastructures are crumbling due to under-investment, as well as due to Covid, with plenty of workers leaving the profession due to burnout after the crisis.
The EU’s upcoming Care Strategy should provide us with an opportunity to increase salaries in this sector, and to improve working conditions overall.
Third, caring needs to stop being a professional and financial sacrifice. To do this, countries could make part-time and other flexible forms of work used by carers more secure through proper eligibility for social security.
Last, employers should create the conditions where all staff take advantage of flexible working arrangements such as telework in a way that allows for work-life balance. And if an organisation’s data shows that women mainly work from home while men mainly work from the office, this should immediately raise a red flag.
In order to take these ideas forward, EIGE will soon be launching a campaign to help the EU take ‘three steps forward’ for equality.
What do we mean by three steps forward?
Well, over recent years, we saw gender equality take one step forward, only to be followed by three steps back again during the pandemic.
As part of our campaign, we will be providing governments, businesses and individuals with the tools to reverse these losses, and to go even further, to take three steps forward, in order to finally achieve gender equality.
I hope you will join us.