August 2020


The gendered pandemic

By Jess Hill

Coronavirus lockdown is undoing gains for women in employment, shared domestic labour and protection from family violence

Since the women’s movement started more than 150 years ago, the trajectory towards greater gender equality has not been linear. From the viewpoint of history, the various gains and losses over the 20th century align with a fathomable logic. But when you’re living inside that history, they can come about abruptly, and with little notice.

The dual cataclysm of World War One and the Spanish Flu, for example, catapulted women into public life at a time when the suffragettes were having to fight men for every inch of progress. Suddenly, with tens of millions of men dead, women were recruited en masse into jobs they had been banned from, and were even paid – in some cases – equal wages to men. 

Twenty-five years later, at the end of World War Two, it may have seemed logical that women – now embedded throughout the workforce – would continue to occupy public life. But the opposite occurred: not only were women removed from public life, an entire cultural mythology was invented to gaslight them into believing it was natural for them to stay at home, and unladylike to want for anything more. It would be another 20 years before women started to wake up to just how illogical that was.

In 2020 – amid the fiercest movement for women’s equality since the 1970s – it’s logical to expect that women’s rights would continue to accrue, albeit still in the face of men’s resistance. But could COVID-19 mark another historic turnaround? Could we be entering a period in which gains we’ve taken for granted are rapidly unwound?

In a recent report, the United Nations – traditionally sanguine in its analysis – said the pandemic could dilute decades of advancement on gender equality. Others have been more forthright. Sam Smethers, chief executive of UK women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society, is warning of a great leap backwards: “We’re looking at the prospect of a two-tier workplace, where men go back and women stay home. It’s taken us 20 years to get this far on female participation in the workforce, but it could take only months to unravel.”

This isn’t just speculation. Already, women around the world are losing their jobs at a faster rate than men: in Australia, 457,500 women have lost work compared to 380,700 men. That’s largely down to which sectors have been hardest hit: employment in accommodation and food services has dropped by about a third, while arts and recreation services have dropped by more than a quarter. Both of those sectors are dominated by women. This is the reverse of the impact of previous downturns, in which the majority of jobs were lost by men. But on top of these raw unemployment figures, greater numbers of women – who make up the vast majority of casual and part-time workers – are also seeing their working hours drastically reduced. “The woman at the epicentre of this neglect is a 23-year-old woman living in the NSW central coast,” said Labor MP Clare O’Neil in a recent address. “She didn’t study beyond high school, and in all likelihood works in food preparation and cleaning. She would be casually employed, and chronically unable to find the hours of work she needs to get by.”

You could put this all down to bad luck. But this lopsided impact also reveals a major structural problem: the people occupying the most precarious jobs are most likely to be women. It’s this structural inequality that is setting the conditions for a wind back in women’s rights under COVID-19.

O’Neil cites another statistic that speaks volumes: since February, 320,000 Australian women have not just stopped working, they’re no longer looking for work. These women have dropped out of the labour force altogether. We don’t know how many of these women are mothers, but we do know that Australian mothers are finding it increasingly difficult to work, whether they’re employed or not. Early results from a University of Melbourne survey, cited by the ABC, show that, overall, children are requiring an extra six hours per day of care and supervision. In heterosexual families, four of those six hours are being done by women. If men feel like they are doing more than usual, they’re right. But they’re still not doing as much as women: on average women are doing just over an hour’s extra housework each day, compared to less than half an hour for men.

There’s nothing new about the unfair division of domestic labour. In 2016, the national census showed that Australian women typically spent between five and 14 hours a week on unpaid domestic work, compared to fewer than five hours for the typical Australian man. Just under a quarter of men surveyed actually owned up to doing no housework at all (compared to 13 per cent of women). There is housework to do. Someone else is doing that housework. And the gendered split on housework is not just driven by financial realities: another study showed that working women were doing more housework than their stay-at-home male partners. Despite gains in so many other areas – narrowing the gender pay gap, more women in the workforce, fathers spending more time with children – the housework gap has remained a yawning chasm for the past 40 years.

It’s in the home – the frontier least modernised by feminism – that COVID-19 is wreaking the most havoc on women. When schools are closed, or when parents lose paid work and can no longer afford to send their young kids to childcare, there is a stark choice to be made: someone has to stay home to look after the kids. In Australia, where the average man declares $69,644 to the tax office and the average woman $48,043 the choice is often depressingly straightforward. “It’s not just about social norms of women performing care roles; it’s also about practicalities,” Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, recently told The Atlantic. “Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility?”

But COVID-19 is not just restricting freedom for women in public life, it is endangering their freedoms in private, too. Across the world, as families have been isolated together in their homes and economies have gone to the wall, domestic abuse has spiked. A recent survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that nearly one in 10 women had experienced domestic abuse from a current or former partner since the start of the pandemic; two-thirds of them said their partner had been abusive for the first time, or that their violence had become more frequent and severe. At St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, women turning up at the emergency department disclosing injuries from family violence doubled in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019.

In a Monash University study in May, 59 per cent of frontline victim-support workers reported a higher frequency of violence against women, and half said the violence was getting more severe. Perpetrators were adapting to the crisis, too: workers reported greater surveillance of internet and mobile phones, as well as new and sadistic abuses such as forcing partners to wash themselves until they bled, isolating them by spreading rumours that they had coronavirus, and using the restrictions to convince women who had left them to return to the house again.

The impact of COVID-19 is starkly gendered, and unless something is done to arrest it, the logic of this moment is for women’s rights to slide backwards. The only way to reverse this logic is by centring gender equality in the policy response. In April, UN secretary-general António Guterres urged governments “to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID-19. That starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power.” But here in Australia, we’re seeing the exact opposite. 

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission – a group of bureaucrats and businesspeople selected to steer the country’s recovery – is co-chaired by two men, and includes only two women to five men. The first group of workers to be taken off JobKeeper were childcare workers – a profession dominated by women. The first plank in the government’s plan to “snap back” to the pre-COVID economy was to cancel free childcare – a decision that was, as O’Neil points out, made by an expenditure review committee chaired by five men. Even funding announcements that may benefit women are framed as a benefit to men: in announcing a $400 million package to incentivise overseas film productions to be shot in Australia, the prime minister was quick to foreground the least artistic beneficiaries: “It’s about the sparkies …” Unsurprisingly, the construction industry was the first industry to get a stimulus boost.

It may seem like common sense for “serious” industries such as construction to be the beneficiaries of government largesse, just as it may seem like common sense to bear the temporary burden of extra childcare and housework – just until the pandemic is over. But this is the same logic that drove women back into their homes after World War Two. It’s the same logic that has put the advancement of men ahead of women since the advent of patriarchy. If the ill-sense of this “logic” isn’t confronted and if women’s rights are taken for granted, we could see gains for women reversed once again.

The second-wave French feminist Simone de Beauvoir once said, “Never forget that a political, economical or religious crisis will be enough to cast doubts on women’s rights. These rights will never be vested. You’ll have to stay vigilant your whole life.” In 2020, as the pandemic continues apace, those words should ring like an alarm bell.

Jess Hill

Jess Hill is an investigative reporter and the author of See What You Made Me Do.

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