Society 06/03/2021

A year of covid: women, increasingly exposed and precarious

The pandemic has taken its toll on women, who occupy the majority of frontline professions

5 min
A year of covid : women, more exposed and more precaritzades

The pandemic has a woman's name. The nurse who cares for covid patients, the assistant who looks after grandparents in nursing homes, the shop assistant who attends to you in the supermarket or the teacher who has ensured your children's education. Women are in the majority in seven of the nine professions that have been at the forefront of covid. They make up 70% of healthcare and pharmaceutical staff, 86% of cleaning staff and 84% of care home staff. These are jobs that are traditionally feminised, invisible, poorly paid and precarious - it often goes together - and which have a common denominator: caring for people. However, with this crisis, which is now a year old, they have been revealed as essential. "We are getting ahead thanks to women", says Cristina Sánchez Miret, PhD in sociology and lecturer at the University of Girona. In general, health crises hit the most vulnerable groups hardest and exacerbate existing gender inequalities. This happened with the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa and the Zika epidemic in Latin America.

For the first time it has become clear that when productive work stops, it is the care system that keeps on rolling and is essential. But has this crisis served to give it the value it deserves? Until now, patriarchy considered care as something innate to women and, as such, a minor task. Margot Pujal, lecturer and researcher in Social Psychology and Gender Studies at the UAB, believes that the pandemic has served to "break the stigma of care and make it visible as essential for life and for the reproduction of productive work". She believes that in order for this not to be a one-off highlight, public policies are needed that "transform the sexual division of labour" and make society in general co-responsible for care. Belen Saavedra, a researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a centre promoted by the La Caixa Foundation, and one of the authors of the document on covid-19 and gender, is in favour of promoting "the professionalisation of the care system" and calls for changes in education. She is backed by Pujal, who believes that in order for men to be integrated into the care system, "training in gender perspective is necessary to undo hegemonic masculinity". Sánchez-Miret, on the other hand, does not believe that this crisis will serve to put care at the centre. "But it is true that it has been impossible to make them invisible because they have been and are fundamental, but they are still not sufficiently valued".

The trap of working from home

Covid does indeed understand gender. Women have been more exposed to the virus and, therefore, have become sicker, and they are also the majority of those affected by persistent covid. As of 4 March, 54% of the positive and suspected cases of covid-19 in Catalonia are women. They have not only been in the front line professionally, but also in the family and domestic sphere. It has been women who have taken on a large part of the responsibilities in the home - " but this goes unsaid". "There is an invisibilisation of the work that women are doing. We have always been able to get ahead thanks to women, but in this pandemic more than ever", insists Sánchez Miret. But the greater presence of women in the front line is not reflected in their participation in leadership positions or in the decision-making centres of the crisis, both in politics and in the health sector. Women are under-represented while men get the media attention and the flashbulbs: 76% of the people who appear in the media to talk about covid are men.

The lockdowns - the first or subsequent quarantine lockdowns when there is a positive case in the classroom - have also highlighted the unequal sharing of childcare and household chores. "It is important to highlight the lack of public support to collaborate in this reconciliation, where many mothers - and some fathers - have been forced to take unpaid leave or even give up their jobs. And this is especially relevant in the case of single-parent households, more than 90% of which are headed by women in Catalonia", stresses economist Elena Costas, who points out that in the case of two-parent households, the decision on who reduces the professional burden is taken on the basis of salary. "And the wage gap - that is, the fact that women are paid less than men for similar jobs - means that these decisions further increase the unequal impact of the crisis at the gender level", she adds.

Working from home, with children kept at home, has not been a real tool for reconciliation, as the overload of unpaid work has continued to fall on them, causing double or even triple working days: who has not taken advantage of the nights, when the children are asleep, to work from home? - with the corresponding stress and anxiety that this entails.

Sánchez Miret says that what has happened at the family and domestic level due to the pandemic "has been devastating". "We have seen that in equal circumstances - men and women locked at home, working and with children - women were three times more occupied than men with housework and child-rearing". For this sociologist, this shows that "the younger generation of men are not changing, they are not up to the task, because the children belong to the father and the mother and household chores belong to everyone, and they have shown that they do not believe this". And she accuses these men of having a false discourse towards the outside world. "They are the ones who have a political position in favour of equality and present themselves as committed fathers, but it has been shown that this was just a façade and that when it comes down to it, there is no real involvement. Women are the ones who have given up, reduced working hours, reduced salaries, left the job ... and not them. Men are not taking responsibility".

Long-term effects

The pandemic has also had an impact on people's mental and emotional health, especially women. "Many women will become ill as a result of this crisis, not only because of the virus, but also because of the enormous overload of caregiving, the result of the double overexertion, physical and emotional, of being alone in caregiving, forced to neglect themselves in order to prioritise the needs of others and at the same time not receiving care from others", laments researcher Margot Pujal. She also recalls that women have suffered more from gender-based violence, especially during home lockdown. "The home is not a safe place for many women and children. And this has most seriously affected the most vulnerable women: migrants, racialised women, women with more precarious jobs...".

All these gender inequalities stem from a patriarchal society that the coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated. And experts warn that the employment impact of covid will have long-term repercussions. Women make up around 55% of the unemployed population and there are sectors that have suffered more than others: 30,000 women have lost their jobs in the world of culture and sports, 23,000 women in the hotel and catering sector and 20,500 in the retail trade sector. And Pujal warns that there are many women working in the informal economy - migrant women without residence permits, domestic workers, interns or sex workers - who will not receive any subsidies. "Many of the professional losses that women are experiencing during this crisis will be irreparable", says Elena Costas. More optimistic, sociologist Cristina Sánchez-Miret recalls that "the whole history of women is based on losses and struggles to recover what has been lost, and that is what is going to happen now". And she trusts that the younger generations of girls will lead the way in this struggle that will come after the pandemic to recover lost advances. "The positive aspect of it all is that I see that these girls are not willing under any circumstances to accept certain injustices and that is very good", she concludes. The future is female.