EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this at an event of the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) titled We are strong: Women leading the fight against Covid-19 on 4 March 2021. The event was organised in cooperation with the Directorate for Relations with National Parliaments. The speech opened up the panel on "Women on the frontlines: lessons learnt from the crisis management".

We have been fighting this pandemic together. Women, men, doctors, nurses, carers, scientists, teachers, shop workers, cleaners…I don’t need to go on.

Overwhelmingly, we have tried to stick together and do our duty.

However, the experience of women and men during the pandemic has often been different. We will release detailed statistics tomorrow looking at how job losses, teleworking and family responsibilities have had a different impact on women and men, so I will take this opportunity to give you an insight into the key lesson I believe we should be taking away from the data.

That is: care is critical to our economies and to our lives.

It seems obvious: we need carers to raise children, to take care of older people and those with disabilities, and those who are sick.

During the pandemic, carers were declared essential workers and we clapped for them nightly as they risked their lives on the frontline of the pandemic.

When childcare facilities closed to contain the virus, millions of parents asked themselves the same question: how are we going to manage without the carers?  

Yet the way we treat carers does not reflect the importance of care, the fact that each and every one of us will need to be cared for at some point in our lives.

Professional care work is one of the lowest paid occupations in the EU, often accompanied by poor contracts that provide little security.

Unpaid care work, the type of work most of us have relied on to make it past our 10th birthday, is not even counted in countries’ balance sheets. It’s considered a free service that brings nothing to our economies – except of course their entire workforces.   

We have to acknowledge that women and men both provide care. However, women do significantly more. They put in more hours caring for children, they cook more, they clean more – across the EU, a spectacular 79 % of women do housework every day, compared to 34 % of men.

Well, during the pandemic, women’s care work really exploded, 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.

Before the pandemic, care responsibilities were keeping 7.7 million women out of work, in comparison with less than half a million men. These figures give us an idea of who has been on the frontline of nurturing the EU’s next generation and caring for those who can no longer take care of themselves.    

Also in the labour market, it is women who are the carers, with 76 % of the EU’s care workforce being women. I’ve already mentioned that, despite being on the frontlines of our lives and of the pandemic, care workers are some of the lowest paid people in the EU.

Their low salaries are a reflection of a bigger issue, namely that work predominantly done by women is valued less than work predominantly done by men. This is clear when we look at the salaries of jobs largely done by women – care work and education for example – in comparison with the salaries in jobs largely done by men – for example engineering and ICT.

Salaries aside, think of how many initiatives you’ve seen to bring more women into engineering and ICT, compared to how many you’ve seen to get men into care work.

Probably very few, most likely none.  

Work predominantly done by women is simply not as respected as that predominantly done by men. No matter how critical it is to our survival. Care work is perceived as women’s work, and is therefore either done for free or on low pay. While we want to get more women doing men’s work, it seems we don’t yet feel comfortable with men doing women’s work.   

This is the key story that keep coming up in EIGE’s data: care work is critical, undervalued, and predominantly done by women.

I hope the pandemic will be the beginning of the end of our under-appreciation of care work -- paid or unpaid. I hope the nightly clapping for carers and the sight of colleagues’ children on Zoom calls has made the reality sink in that we all require care, and that many of us will also be carers at some point in our lives.

Change seems to be afoot in a number of countries, with the pandemic prompting France to invest billions in healthcare, while Germany is giving its early education and care services an injection of cash.

As Europe’s societies age, the number of people needing care will only get bigger.

This is the idea with which I’d like to close: while we certainly need women in decision-making roles and occupations dominated by men, we also need men to embrace care work – both professionally and at home.

To achieve this, EIGE is calling for a European Strategy on Social Care to ensure that the right to receive care, which is enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, actually becomes a reality. This would ensure that care, which has been at the heart of the pandemic, will also be at the heart of our recovery.    

This is how we will build back better after the pandemic.

Thank you.