Illustration photo creator Alberto Giuliani
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta
It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and we, as a people, have seen the world change, right down to our work. Whether you lost your job due to the economic shutdown, you now wear a mask and gloves at your workplace, or have transformed your living room into a home office, we’ve all been impacted. Although the pandemic has changed the workplace for us all, the reality is that it has affected women in far more severe ways than men.
‘Pink-collar work’ refers to job fields dominated by women, particularly care-oriented fields, and not a single one of them remained unaffected when the pandemic hit. At the top of the list is healthcare workers. Countless news stories have covered the empowering stories of COVID-19 and the importance of saying “thank you” to the healthcare workers who risked their lives in order to save others. However, these stories fail to mention the obvious: these healthcare workers are women. Nearly 70 percent of the global healthcare workforce is made up of women.
Roughly 86 percent of nurses in the Americas, 84 percent of nurses in Europe and 81 percent of nurses in the Western Pacific are women. Because women make up the frontlines, women are disproportionately at risk to contracting COVID-19. In April 2020, the CDC reported that 73 percent of U.S. healthcare workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were women. In addition to the risk posed to their physical health working in hospitals, the psychological burden of being surrounded by dying patients is massive, which can result in increased stress levels in minor cases or post-traumatic stress disorder in the worst cases.
On a global scale, about two-thirds of teachers are women, and these women had to adapt when the pandemic hit. Months of planning and revising lesson plans were rendered useless for teachers when the world shifted to online learning. For those in Indonesia, teaching through a pandemic meant adding weekly trips to each household to the list of job responsibilities, going above and beyond to ensure success for their students. Because the inaccessibility of electricity and technology proved to be a barrier for students in remote villages, home visits were not uncommon to assist students with distanced learning. Not to mention, a learning curve exists for teachers who are not quite tech savvy and were suddenly thrust into teaching through a screen.
Could an article about women in the workplace be complete without mentioning the wage gap? It is no secret that the pandemic has not been financially kind to anyone. However, the economic impacts have disproportionately affected women. Overall, European women lost around 8 percent of their total wage bill, which is 3 percent more than that of an average European man, which stands at about 5 percent, meaning that the already present wage gap has significantly widened.
The exacerbation of the wage gap after the COVID-19 pandemic can largely be attributed to the shutdown of non-essential businesses in order to keep us safe. Of these non-essential businesses were restaurants, retail locations and hair salons — all business in which women are overrepresented. If the women working in these industries were lucky enough to stay on payroll, it is more than likely that there were no paychecks written for weeks. Unsurprisingly, inequity results when these earnings are then compared to the white-collar men working office jobs who did not miss a beat — or a paycheck — when the world went virtual.
Not factored into the wage gap is unpaid labour, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, which sounds a lot like the unpaid labour that has been expected of women for centuries. Prior to the pandemic, on a global scale, the average woman spent over four hours of her day doing these tasks, which is significantly more than the two hours the average man spent on unpaid labour.
COVID-19 put many women out of a job and sent children home from school until further notice. As a result, the unpaid labour workload drastically increased. Women began putting in 15 more hours of unpaid labour per week than men.
UNEMPLOYED WITHOUT UNEMPLOYMENT
Domestic work is defined as any work done in or for a household, which encompasses cooking, cleaning and childcare. Whether it falls under the category of unpaid labour done by a household member or paid labour done by a hired hand, domestic work is central for well-being. The hired hands are widely known as domestic workers, and domestic workers are the cleaners and nannies working ‘under the table,’, as it is colloquially said, or work without formal employment. To tie it all back to the overarching reason for mentioning domestic work, one in 25 women workers worldwide is a domestic worker.
In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) of 25,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers in the U.S., nine out of 10 respondents were women with young children. These women provide a crucial service to their communities, such as caring for children and the elderly and providing sanitation, which are both much more necessary in the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic shut down the U.S., social distancing ordered families to put a halt on having neighbours, friends and cleaners for visits in the home. The majority of the domestic workers surveyed lost work and did not apply for unemployment insurance because they did not believe they qualified, resulting in financial and housing insecurity. More than half of these same domestic workers were unable to pay their rent or mortgage for six months.
Latin America and the Caribbean employ between 11 and 18 million domestic workers. Of these millions of workers, 93 percent are women whose income is equal to or less than 50 percent of the average worker. In the face of the pandemic, domestic workers in Latin America face similar struggles as those in the U.S.: strict social distancing measures that limit work, however, the outcome has differed.
Advocacy for domestic workers in Latin America has led to countries granting the same rights to informal workers which formal workers enjoy. Argentina allowed domestic workers to enjoy paid leave while strict stay-at-home orders were in place. Because domestic work is intertwined with women’s rights, the National Council for Gender Equality has pushed for the non-termination of employment contracts in Ecuador, and in Costa Rica, the National Institute of Women developed a campaign to educate women domestic workers on their rights to relief during the pandemic.
Like the COVID-19 disease itself, the long-term effects of this pandemic on gender equity are relatively uncertain. In 2019, it was predicted that the global pay gap would not close for another 257 years, and the pandemic has only forced a large step backwards in closing the wage gap — about 36 years backwards, to be exact. However, we have seen evidence all over the world that uncertain times breed reform. The current predicted future of work for women has the potential to change, but it cannot and will not happen without the effort.