EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at an event titled Gender Equality As a Driver for Recovery, organised by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 5 March 2021.

With International Women’s Day just around the corner, and the EU set to roll out its Covid-19 recovery package across Europe, it is very timely that we are here today to discuss gender equality as the driving force behind the EU’s recovery.

As you know, countries will have to show how their national economic recovery plans will advance gender equality when they apply for the money. This means putting gender equality at the heart of recovery, as every country will have to think about how their plans will impact equality between women and men.

However, gender equality should not only be considered in the silos of a policy, but rather it needs to be mainstreamed into every stage of policymaking – including the design, implementation and monitoring - with a view not only to promote equality between women and men, in all their diversity, but also to improve the quality of the policy itself.

Covid-19 has triggered a number of worrying trends that risk derailing the gradual improvements in gender equality that have been made over the past decades.

The findings from EIGE’s forthcoming report on gender equality and the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, which we have prepared at the request of the Portuguese Presidency, give us some insights into the effects that the pandemic is having on the lives of women and men in the EU.

Our study shows that following five years of growth at EU-level, employment declined for both women and men in all EU Member States at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. It reduced by 2.2 million for women and by 2.6 million for men. Because there were less women than men in the labour market to begin with, employment declined for both groups by 2.4 %.      

Rising employment rates during the summer of 2020 did not unfortunately lead to equal employment gains for women and men. Men gained more than twice as many jobs as women. The emerging statistics also show that only 170,000 women aged 25-49 gained jobs, compared with 440,000 men in the same age bracket.

We must stress that labour market opportunities for women and men are different because of gendered differences of their occupational profiles. Many of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, are those with high rates of women’s employment. Women working in retail, accommodation, residential care, domestic work and clothing manufacturing suffered heavy job losses, with the jobs lost in these sectors accounting for 40% of all women's lost employment during the first wave of Covid-19. As shown by sluggish economic performance across a number of these sectors, their chances of getting these jobs back is currently bleak.

Time is starting to show that the economic impact of the pandemic is having longer lasting ‘scarring’ effects on women.  

One of the main reasons threatening to derail women’s employment gains is the unequal sharing of care, which can hold women back from entering the job market, or improving their career prospects. It is also a contributing factor to the gender pay gap, and the gender pension gap later in life.

Across the EU, it is no secret that the bulk of unpaid care work is done by women. Well, women’s care work really exploded during the pandemic, with online schooling emerging as a new unpaid job predominantly done by women. Men also increased how much they did at home, but women still clocked many more hours on the tasks that are essential to our wellbeing, but not remunerated.

As the workplace moved into people’s homes, time spent on cooking and housework increased for both women and men during the lockdown period.

According to Eurofound’s Covid-19 e-survey, European women dedicated 18.4 hours per week to cooking and housework, compared to 12.1 hours for men. In 2016, the figures were 15.8 for women and 6.8 for men. Both then and now, these burdens have been much higher for parents and those with other caring responsibilities.    

At the start of the pandemic, a big share of the EU population shifted to telework. The rates of people working from home are higher in households with children and particularly among lone parents, suggesting that telework is used to balance work and family life, particularly among women.

However, telework is not a solution for childcare. Our study shows that mothers have to deal with interruptions by children more often than fathers when teleworking. Constant distractions and extra care responsibilities for women lowers their productivity and could reduce their career progression and pay.

While the pandemic has shown the potential of a digital workforce, teleworking has heightened work-life balance conflicts, especially for women with young children aged 0-5 years.

The situation for lone parents can be even more difficult, especially when having to juggle working from home and caring for children alone. If they get sick, their situation gets even more complicated. Women make up almost 85% of all lone parents and the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to increase the poverty risk for them and their children, making it harder to afford basic essentials like food and heating.

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of care for a well-functioning society and economy. Yet the assumption that caring is still women’s work, even when paid, contributes to its undervaluation. 

When thinking about recovery measures, it is important to also think about how to ensure a fairer distribution of unpaid care and how to better compensate those who provide care. For that we need a dual approach that would support both equal sharing of care within families, as well as accessible, quality care services that provide their staff with decent salaries.

First, we need changes at the household level, so that an equal sharing of care tasks between women and men becomes the norm. The impact of withdrawing from the labour market has to be made clear. Career interruptions to provide care leave women with far lower pensions than men across the EU. Unpaid work is a major reason behind old-age poverty among women. Second, it is important that people have access to affordable, professional care services that can help tackle the rising care needs expected in the EU as the population ages.

The fact that women are still disproportionately responsible for caring and housework also makes it harder for them to find time for regular training to update their skills. As our world becomes increasingly digital, this is a worry.  In order to keep up with digital innovation, people need to keep improving their skills if they want to take advantage of the new, well-paid jobs becoming available, which require a high level of digital skills. This is especially important as many women and men now find themselves out of work because of the pandemic. Adult education will play a major role in helping them to reskill and reintegrate into the labour market.

However, caring responsibilities are again holding women back from taking part in adult education and training. In the EU, on average, 40% of women compared to 24 % of men cannot participate in lifelong learning due to family responsibilities.

At the end of the day, Europe will bounce back from this pandemic, but only if gender equality is included in recovery measures.  

EU policymakers understand this, and it’s why they’ve asked Member States to show how their economic recovery plans promote gender equality when applying to access the EU’s €672 billion recovery fund to help their economies get back on track.

With this small win for gender equality, and knowing that the impact of the pandemic is different on women and men, there is no excuse for Member States to ignore their different concerns when designing and implementing recovery measures. Ensuring gender equality will improve the lives of all EU citizens and drive recovery efforts as we navigate our way out of this pandemic together.