[eng] María José Escobar Opazo - Gender inequality in the workplace during Covid-19 pandemic

"The Covid-19 Pandemic has Caused a Setback of Over a Decade in Labor Market Participation for Women in the Region" [1]. This was the title of a press release from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) of February 10, 2021. On the other hand, the website of the European Parliament headlined “Understanding Covid-19's impact on women”, indicating that “about 84% of the working women aged 15-64 are employed in services, including in the main Covid-hit sectors that are facing job losses” [2].

Gender equality has been a long struggle of claims and setbacks. It is currently guaranteed by international Human Rights treaties, and at the local level, promoted in the Treaty on European Union, it is a key principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Thus, from basic rights such as education, suffrage, or the most advanced such as the control of our body, including motherhood, and the discrimination we have to endure in all areas. Labor matters are not an exception. Discrimination that we experience when we are confronted with the search for employment, with prejudices in relation to how we dress or if we have children or we will have them in the future, or if we spend a period of our lives outside the labor market because we have dedicated ourselves to the care of our children, or a family member, make us disadvantaged in comparison to men from the beginning. Likewise, the wage gap we must face, the workplace and sexual harassment, the protection measures without a gender perspective, and the double presence of women at work and at home, continue to be a barrier for the entry and subsequent progress of women in the workplace.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased these obstacles, reversing years of achieved claims, also increasing the gap in comparison to the level of men’s unemployment. These overwhelming numbers are the result of causes related mainly to the double presence of women, at work and at home, and to gender discrimination in the workplace.

Taking charge of the first group of causes that I have called 'at home', are the care tasks, due to the lack of co-responsibility in the upbringing of children, and also in the tasks of caring for a family member considered within the so-called risk group of the new virus. This is how women have had to perform a greater amount of domestic work, in relation to these duties, granted to women since ancient times, in some cultures. And this is so, since, instead of promoting joint responsibility with men and society, we transferred these functions to other women who have taken charge of the care of children, the elderly or family members with disabilities, maintaining consequently the patriarchal figure of care.

When we entered the necessary quarantine, we saw how schools and nurseries had to be closed, that forced the most vulnerable to stay at home. This increased the workload of women, who had to return home, to which was added remote work in most cases of professional functions, and in those which it was not possible, suspending them almost permanently.

In this way, women were forced to stay at home and convert to the roles of teachers, nurses, in addition to doing the cleaning, shopping, among others, while fulfilling the tasks required in jobs where remote work was possible. On the other hand, those who saw their salaries suspended due to the closure of places where they worked, in turn had to fire those who performed these roles in their homes, with the worry and uncertainty of having no resources. 

All this uncertainty has also amplified mental health problems in women, increasing discouragement, lack of relationships, stress and depression.

Added to this obstacle, we find that discrimination regarding the workplace has widened. It is well known that this economic crisis, derived from the pandemic, has hit a sector of the economy in which women are strongly active harder, that is, the service area. According to the article of the European Parliament [3], 84% of women between the ages of 15 and 64 occupy this sector, as mentioned above, which is why we see a large rise in unemployment.

It is also necessary to highlight that more than 30% of women in the EU work part-time and occupy a large share of jobs in the informal economy, which tend to have fewer labor rights as well as less health protection and other fundamental benefits. These women have seen their income reduced without being able to opt for state aid offered due to unemployment or low wages.

On the other hand, we see that there is greater discrimination and impact on women who are still active in the labor force, as is the case, for example, of health workers. This article reveals that in the European Union around 76% of these workers are women. Likewise, the so-called essential tasks have not been stopped, but those who carry them out have seen their work get more precarious, as is the case for supermarket personnel, childcare, or cleaning and helping staff. These women have been more exposed to contagion and to longer working hours, jeopardizing their labor rights and their quality of life and that of their families.

It should be noted that these average figures have been taken as a reference with data collected in the European Union, with a substantial difference between the member countries. Therefore, if we extrapolate these data to areas with less economic development such as Latin America, the difference is even greater and more catastrophic.

Finally, and as part of the diagnosis, we must emphasize the augmentation of the economic dependence of women in relation to a patriarchal figure, thereby multiplying gender violence, which we have fought so hard to eradicate in recent years, and that has ended with the lives of so many women murdered by men.

But in this crisis that we are going through, we must focus on a challenge and an opportunity to eliminate deeply held stereotypes. This is why the work of the new leaders must go even deeper and be part of public policies concerned with gender equality. Today the task is to equalize labor rights for maternity to men and women, that is, postnatal and parental leave, of both parents. Likewise, social protection nets must be focused on gender equality, without considering care work as something unique to women. On the other hand, it is of great relevance to have a greater promotion of the hiring of women and to regulate the new work platforms (the so-called “uberization” of services) in order to minimize informal work.

In the same way, economic policies focused on reactivation must have a gender perspective, promoting the sectors most affected by the pandemic and in which there is a greater female presence, and not, as is usually the case, promoting the construction sector or others. On the other hand, in order to demolish patriarchal myths and root out historical discrimination, the training and reconversion of women to employments qualified as men's jobs can be an avant-garde policy for our times.

Finally, this crisis can lead us to rethink society in structural terms, if we put the effort into each of the sectors of power. I am referring here to the authorities of state powers, as well as to local governments and social organizations, encouraging the participation of women in leadership positions.

So, we must hope that this sinister pandemic crisis will be a future rebirth in terms of rights, in order to achieve a balance in society, making it more just and fair. And that decades of setbacks will be recovered, establishing, therefore, a community that leaves patriarchy out of the picture forever.

[1] https://www.cepal.org/en/pressreleases/covid-19-pandemic-has-caused-setback-over-decade-labor-market-participation-women
[2] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/
[3] Ibid.

* María José Escobar Opazo
Lawyer in Chile; Master in Labor Law and Social Security Université Paris 1, Pantheón Sorbonne; Master in Constitutional Law and Fundamental Rights Université Paris 1, Pantheón Sorbonne; Founding partner of D.E. Abogados.

[1] Translated from the Spanish and French by Andrea Balart-Perrier.

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