Women workers have been hit hardest by the pandemic-induced slowdown – and it could get even worse.
Unlike previous economic crises, the current crisis has disproportionately affected the employment of women in the European Union. This translates not only into significant job losses in the female-dominated sectors of the economy, but also – perhaps most strikingly – in poorer working conditions, greater financial fragility and employment. new conflicts between work and personal life for women.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, the number of unemployed in the EU increased by around 2.4 million, of which more than 1.3 million were women. Female unemployment increases 20.4%, against 16.3% for men.
Beyond the job losses – mitigated by the partial unemployment schemes in place in almost all EU countries – the impact of the pandemic on employment is evident in the drop in hours worked. Between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020, the decline in the total number of hours worked in the main job was again more marked for women (-18.1%) than for men (-14.3%).
Already existing imbalances
This disproportionate impact on women has a lot to do with the already existing gender imbalances that overlap sectors of the economy. The ‘social distancing’ and lockdown measures hit services requiring direct contact with people most intensely, where teleworking is not an option: accommodation, catering, tourism, retail, entertainment, domestic work, etc.
Because women account for 61% of workers in these sectors were more exposed to layoffs, temporary layoffs and reduced hours: it was only in retail and entertainment that men suffered more job losses between the last quarter 2019 and the third quarter of 2020 (see graph). In food and accommodation services – arguably the hardest hit – 880,000 jobs were lost during this period, of which 535,000 were held by women.
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Sectors dominated by men, such as industry and construction, have not been immune to the crisis. Not only was the initial decline in activity less intense, but they bounced faster and more sharply in the following months than intensive contact-intensive services, whose decline was just as dramatic during the second and third waves of the pandemic.
In addition, between Q4 2019 and Q3 2020, job creation systematically favored men over women (except in the public sector). In particular, hiring in telecommunications and computer programming benefited 630,000 men but less than 170,000 women.
Job losses and gains in the EU-27, Q4 2019 to Q3 2020
In the longer term, women’s employment is likely to deteriorate further. With the end of support from short-time working schemes and other public measures, sectors unable to recover quickly and strongly are at risk of massive business failures and increased unemployment.
According to forecasts by the European Commission, the services will take longer to recover, barely reaching pre-crisis levels at the end of 2021, meaning that women may experience the effects of the crisis for longer than men. Additionally, research suggests that after leave plans end, atypical workers are more likely to be made redundant than full-time employees. As women are overrepresented in this category – making up the vast majority of part-time workers – they are also more likely to be laid off in the months to come.
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Women constitute the majority of in the first line workers: 76 percent of healthcare workers, 82 percent of cashiers in grocery stores, 86 percent of personal care workers, 93 percent of educators and educators, and 95 percent of domestic and domestic workers. During the crisis, these workers experienced an increased workload, with greater exposure to health risks and emotional demands than those experienced by any other category of workers. Yet despite difficult working conditions, these professions are also among the most undervalued – including underpaid – in the EU.
In addition, although extraordinary measures to protect workers and businesses during the crisis cushioned the loss of income, women experienced greater economic hardship than men – possibly due to previous inequalities. Because women are overrepresented among low-wage workers in the EU, who account for 58 percent of minimum wage earners and 62 percent of workers earning significantly less than minimum wage, wage replacement measures – even generous ones – may have been insufficient to guarantee their economic security during the pandemic. Indeed, according to Eurofound, more women have reported difficulties make ends meet and maintain their standard of living during this period: 58% said they could not survive more than three months, compared to 48% of men.
Yet, due to the severe economic strains faced by many companies during the pandemic, gender equality measures will, at least in the short term, be likely be seen as a side issue for company boards, especially since across the EU women make up only 34% of board members and only 9% of chairmen. Governments, meanwhile, may be inclined to give companies some relaxation of their pay reporting obligations and other measures to tackle pay inequalities between men and women. In France, for example, companies already postponing the adoption of equality plans to reduce the pay gap between men and women, despite the proven economic advantages of this approach.
The spread of telecommuting, as well as the closure of schools and daycares due to lockdowns, have increased the need for care within households during the pandemic. Yet old habits die hard – especially when it comes to gender roles – and this heavier burden has not been equally shared.
According to preliminary research, it was women who took care of most of the unpaid care, spending much more time than men looking after children and household chores (53 hours compared to 37 hours). The difference is even more astounding when we consider only women with children: they devote 85 hours per week to these tasks, compared to 51 hours for men.
This increase in domestic and family responsibilities has left women struggling to balance their work and personal lives. Seventeen percent of women with children reported that it was difficult for them to focus on their work because of their family, and 13% said their family prevented them from spending time on their work. Men, on the other hand, seemed largely unaffected, with just 6 and 3 percent respectively stating so.
The data also confirms that women more likely reduce their working hours to provide care for children during the pandemic. This enforced “under-involvement” at work could have lasting consequences on women’s careers, as it could compromise their chances of being promoted compared to their male counterparts who did not feel the same constraints. In addition, it puts some women in the first line future job cuts.
Fears that the pandemic will reverse recent advances in gender equality in the labor market are therefore real and must be addressed. To avoid lasting effects on the employment of women that would turn the economic recession into a real ‘sell-out’, the EU and its Member States must ensure a gender-sensitive recovery. This implies integrating the gender dimension into their recovery plans and including specific actions to tackle existing inequalities, such as gender inequalities in employment and pay, among others.
Overcoming the crisis should not put aside the fight for gender equality – but strengthen it.
This is the first in a series on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on women, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.