“Our formal economy is only possible because it’s subsidized by women’s unpaid work.”
— Nahla Valji, the senior gender adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations
While both women and men are suffering the economic fallout of the virus across the world, it is women — already more likely to be in poverty than men, already more likely to be earning a smaller paycheck, already with less savings, already more likely to be in precarious jobs — who are being disproportionately squeezed.
Add to that, the next-to-invisible but overwhelming burden of unpaid labor, the bulk of which is shouldered by women in every country in the world.
The virus has exposed gender fault lines in myriad ways. And it raises questions: What do we know so far? What will we learn from it? How will things look on the other side?
I asked Nahla Valji, the senior gender adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations, and Alisha Haridasani Gupta, gender reporter for In Her Words, to unpack these issues with me.
You can listen to our discussion here, or read the edited excerpts below.
Francesca Donner: We know that economies the world over have been ravaged. What does this mean for women in particular?
Nahla Valji: Crises amplify existing inequalities, and so across the world women are being affected more severely by the socioeconomic impacts of this pandemic. This is because in every country women earn less, they save less, they’re more likely to be in precarious jobs with little security or protections if they do work, or in the informal sector, with no protections at all. And that means that they have less buffer to economic shocks, such as the ones we are experiencing.
Then, when we start to drill down into specific groups we see, for example, that the majority of single parent households are women. The majority of refugees and internally displaced individuals around the world are women and girls. So there’s layers of inequality here.
What we’ve learned from past pandemics is that while everyone suffers economically in the short term, men’s incomes tend to return to some degree of normalcy much faster. For women, the economic shocks last longer.
That’s a grim picture. Alisha, can you paint the economic picture for women in the U.S. specifically?
Alisha Haridasani Gupta: There’s a very real push and pull here. On one hand, women make up the essential workers on the front lines. The New York Times analyzed government data and found that one in three jobs that have been designated essential in this pandemic is held by a woman — jobs like health care workers (around 78 percent are women), cashiers at grocery stores, drugstore pharmacists. Women are doing crucial work, but it’s underpaid and undervalued.
On the other hand, women in nonessential work — retail, for example — are being laid off. Historically, economic crises have hit industries that are male-dominated like manufacturing, agriculture, mining, but this time it’s the inverse. In Minnesota, for example, every week more women than men are filing for unemployment.
It’s hard to talk about paid work without acknowledging the unpaid labor at home — things like cooking, cleaning, caring for kids or aging parents — the work people do because they have to. Nahla, can you speak to the effect that the coronavirus has had on unpaid labor, and what that means for women?
Nahla: It’s one of the starkest consequences that we’re seeing from this crisis. The care work in the home has really grown exponentially with children out of school. We have elder care needs that have increased, we have health systems that are overwhelmed and people who are sick and still require assistance that are now at home. And historically, traditionally, these responsibilities have fallen on the shoulders of women in the home. As you said, disproportionately, women do more of the work in the home than men — the global average is three times more but that varies geographically and country by country. In some countries, it’s six or seven times more
And, you know, this really underpins so many of the inequalities that women experience. These are hours that could be spent on income generation. It’s at the heart of the motherhood penalty, wage inequality, structural biases in recruitment and promotion of women and jobs — and the pandemic is really making visible.
Our formal economy is only possible because it’s subsidized by women’s unpaid work. And so we have almost this black box over the home and everything that happens there has a zero dollar value on it. We don’t have adequate child care anywhere in the world. As social services, social protections and health care access decrease, we put more strain on the home. And I think that’s becoming really visible at the moment with this crisis.
So we need to be thinking about how we rebuild in a way that’s more equitable. And that will also ensure that we’re more resilient to future shocks. So any conversation that we’re having with regards to building back better, we really need to place the care economy at the center of our economic models.
And this is happening even in countries we think of as very female favorable…
Alisha: Right. I’ve really been thinking a lot about what might be a possible cultural shift here. I spoke to an economics professor at Northwestern University, Matthias Doepke, who said something that stuck with me: For many families where women are the essential paid workers — for example, nurses, doctors, grocery cashiers — all of those families might, for the first time, have a situation where the woman is out working and perhaps the husband is at home. So this might force a change in that the men have to suddenly start cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids. I don’t know how long term that might be, but there is evidence to show that even if you have a temporary shift in the care burden it tends to last. So, I don’t know that you could call it a silver lining, but it might be interesting to watch going forward.
Nahla: There’s a possibility we’ll come out of this with some positives. We’re seeing a lot more acceptance of flexible work arrangements and telecommuting that might help all of us rebalance work and family life in a different way. That would be positive for equality.
But we need women in positions of leadership to ensure that solutions are informed by a diversity of views and experiences. Because if not, we could deepen inequalities. One example of that is the discussion about how we reopen countries that have been on lockdown. How do we sequence businesses and schools? If schools are staying shut, but the economy is opening, there’s an expectation that one parent is going to stay at home. And because of traditional norms and gender roles and because of wage inequality, the likelihood is that it ends up being the woman who stays home.
And so we potentially risk taking ourselves backward in terms of women’s labor force participation, equality, and more generally, with regards to the division of labor.