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Coronavirus crisis harms women disproportionately

Marina Strauss
May 3, 2020

Cliched role allocations between the sexes are re-emerging amid the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis as unpaid care work or high-risk jobs are often disproportionately done by women. Marina Strauss reports from Brussels.

A female worker in Italy wearing a mask
Image: Reuters/Y. Nardi

The coronavirus crisis is not without its little pleasures. For Audrey Lebeau-Live, one of them is pushing the mute button on the video and audio conferences from her work. This button allows her to do the washing up, listen with one ear to her daughter giving a presentation in the next room to her computer camera and — if all goes well — put a load of washing in the machine.

Since the French government imposed comprehensive stay-at-home regulations and temporarily closed schools in mid-March, Lebeau-Live has been feeling like many parents across the world who have to work and look after children at the same time. "You have the sense of never getting enough done, never coping with everything," she says on the telephone.

Audrey Lebeau-Live
"We must examine parity in all areas of society," says Audrey Lebeau-Live, who works in nuclear security for the French governmentImage: privat

Under normal circumstances, she and her husband used to share household chores. But now, for example, cooking lunch is an additional task, as everyone ate in the canteen before the coronavirus crisis hit. "It's mostly the mothers who get burdened with the extra work," Lebeau-Live says, and laughs, even though she doesn't really feel like laughing. She says she feels responsible for it all, unlike her husband, who thinks: What I manage, I manage; the rest can wait for the time being.

Read more: Equality between men and women still over a century away

The missing female perspective

Lebeau-Live feels that this has to do with the fact that women still have to prove themselves more, especially when they have a leadership position. She heads a small team at IRSN, the French agency responsible for protection against radiation and for nuclear security, situated near Paris. She criticizes the fact that those who decide on making people work at home and forbidding them to leave the house are often men who do not take into account the perspective of women.

Art therapist Hannah Elsche
"Jobs often done by women, like social work, must be better reumunerated," says Hannah Elsche, a Berlin-based therapistImage: Jan Philipp Welchering

Hannah Elsche, an art therapist from Berlin, sees things in a similar light. Like Lebeau-Live, she has three children. Because of the coronavirus crisis, she decided — of necessity — to extend her parental leave. "Many women are looking after children more at the moment because their husbands or partners earn more," Elsche says. She says she sees this happening around her as well, and that her husband wasn't even asked who was looking after the children at home.

Although many may call these "First World problems," Catriona Graham sees the situation as serious. "Gender stereotypes are among the strongest and most rigid causes of sexism and inequality," she says. Particularly in times of crisis, many people find security in going back to stereotyped roles, says Graham, who works for the European Women's Lobby, an organization that advocates women's interests.

Catriona Graham, European Women's Lobby
Catriona Graham of the European Women's Lobby says that all of society must critically question sliding back into stereotypical gender rolesImage: privat

Among these cliched role stereotypes is the one that women are more responsible for children and the household, and perhaps care for older family members as well. According to UNICEF, women across the world did three times as much unpaid care work as men even before the current crisis. And the UN says this type of work is now growing "exponentially."

Read more: Women work for free as billionaires get richer

Keeping things running

Single mothers are affected particularly severely by the restrictions imposed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some 85% of parents who look after children on their own are women. Some years ago, Laurence Helaili-Chapuis from Dublin founded a group to support these mothers. She says many such women are now getting in touch with her because they are "in a complicated situation." Helaili-Chapuis says even shopping is difficult for a lot of them, while some are also worried about their professional future.

Laurence Helaili-Chapius
Single mothers' support group founder Laurence Helaili-Chapuis: "In the crisis, the role of women in society has slid back noticeably"Image: privat

And not without cause. The UN is already warning that women will be the ones to suffer the most under the economic consequences of the crisis. It estimates that almost 60% of women worldwide work in the informal economy; they earn less than men, can save less as a result and are at greater risk of descending into poverty.

Read more: Women earn 20% less than men in Germany

At the same time, it is largely women who are keeping things running at the moment. In the European Union, for example, women make up almost 80% of workers in the health sector. Employees in supermarkets who continue to operate the tills and cleaning personnel who are still keeping things hygienic are mostly women. And because of the types of work they do, they are exposed to a higher risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus.

It is not the first time that women have been the ones to bear the brunt of a crisis. Studies on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example, show that women were in greater danger of being infected, partly because it was mostly them looking after those who were ill.

A health worker in a German clinic
Nearly 80% of health sector workers in the EU are femaleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

Codeword 'Mask 19'

There is also another type of danger lying in wait for women who have to stay home during the coronavirus crisis, and this one is homemade: domestic violence.

Evelyn Regner, an Austrian Social Democratic politician who is the chair of the committee for women's rights in the European Parliament, says that one in three women had already had an experience of violence in her direct environment even before the current crisis.

She says that number has now exploded, with the UN saying that in Italy, 75% more women are ringing helplines; in other countries, such calls have doubled.

Austrian MEP Evelyn Regner
"We must sort out the enormous wage gap between men and women" says Austrian MEP Evelyn RegnerImage: Thomas Peintinger

But Regner also mentions some hopeful developments. In Spain, for example, women can get help in pharmacies — one of the few places they are still allowed to visit amid the restrictions — if they use the codeword "Mask 19." The pharmacists will then know what is meant and tell the police, Regner says.

"The coronavirus is making crises worse," Regner says, whether violence against women, the salary gap, or the difficulties faced by single mothers. "Things that were already bad are now getting even more serious."

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