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How will the response to coronavirus affect gender equality?

The Covid-19 crisis presents a potentially major setback for gender equality with its effects likely to persist long after lockdown has ended. Why have women borne such a heavy economic and caring burden – and will the negative impact persist?

The Covid-19 crisis looks set to expose the fragility of the gains in women’s employment and pay made in recent decades. Early evidence tells us that that the shutdown of a large part of the economy has delivered a hard hit to the service sector, where women are more likely to work. Along with school and nursery closures, this has meant that women are currently bearing a heavy economic and caring burden as a result of lockdown.

But the crisis has not affected all women equally. Mothers of young children and those who are most vulnerable economically, including those who are less skilled, and single mothers who are unable to share the burden of childcare, have seen the biggest shocks to their economic and mental wellbeing.

Yet manufacturing and construction, while less directly affected by lockdown, have also suffered large falls in output. In the longer term, as with prior recessions, this may be particularly damaging for men’s employment. How the current crisis will play out to affect gender equality is not clear cut.

More positively, over time changes in the ways in which people are working may help parents to combine work and care, opening up career opportunities and allowing a more equitable division of labour within households.

Have women’s jobs been more adversely affected than men by the lockdown?

A large body of current and past research can help us to predict how gender differences in employment may play out over the current crisis, and how this may affect men and women’s labour market opportunities over the longer term.

In contrast with previous recessions, women have been more adversely affected by this crisis. In the past, the concentration of women’s employment in service sector jobs protected them from the most adverse effects of downturns, as jobs in manufacturing and construction were most vulnerable to the economic cycle. Now it means that they are more likely than men to work in sectors that are locked down (Alon et al, 2020), or in industries where work cannot be done from home (Gustafsson and McCurdy, 2020).

New evidence is emerging rapidly on how men and women may be affected by the policy response to Covid-19. Based on information from large, nationally representative UK surveys collected prior to the lockdown, research suggests that women were one-third more likely than men to have been working in sectors that were locked down (Joyce and Xu, 2020).

One limitation of this research is that it is based on predictions about which workers will be able to continue to work, based on their sector of employment. For example, Joyce and Xu assume that those who are affected include non-food retail, restaurants and hotels, passenger transport, personal services, and arts and leisure services. But in reality, many other sectors have also closed, even if they were not required to. For example, some employers in construction and manufacturing have also closed their doors. As a result, the effects may be more widely felt by men than early predictions suggest.

Real-time data are only currently available from a handful of studies. One of the most widely cited studies of the current crisis confirms predictions that women’s employment had been hit hardest: by early April, women were around 5% more likely to have lost their job than men (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020). This evidence, which is based on a nationally representative survey of around 4,000 employees, finds that while this is partly a result of the different jobs that men and women do, but that even after accounting for these differences, women still have a greater risk of job loss.

Similar findings are reported in an analysis of data on those employed prior to lockdown, which shows that by mid-May, women were 5% less likely to be working even after other differences, such as occupation, were taken into account (Sevilla and Smith, 2020). This was partly because women were around 2% more likely to have lost their job, and 3% more likely to have been furloughed.

These studies give a partial picture of how lockdown has affected employment. For the working age population as a whole, data from the first wave Understanding Society’s Covid-19 study, a nationally representative survey of 17,450 individuals, indicate few gender differences in the effect of lockdown on employment. By late April, among those aged 20-65, the study reports only small falls in employment (including self-employment) although the share of people working positive weekly hours showed a large drop. On both measures, it finds few differences between men and women (Benzeval et al, 2020).

How have caring responsibilities affected employment?

School and nursery closures have meant that parents must now spend much more time caring for children. Caring responsibilities have long been shown to increase the gender divide in work and care. For example, in the years following childbirth, a very large share of new mothers reduce their working hours or withdraw from the labour market, while new fathers move into work and increase their working hours (Harkness et al, 2019). All else equal, it is likely to be the case that similar patterns of work and care would emerge in response to the increased need to look after children.

Where the current crisis differs, however, is in the availability of parental care. With one-quarter of workers furloughed and unemployment rising, fathers may also have more time on their hands to care for young children. But to date, the evidence suggests that while men are spending more time caring for children, mothers have taken on more hours of care – and this appears to be having a more direct impact on their employment.

Among couples with children aged 4 to 15, mothers are one and a half times more likely than fathers to have lost their job or quit since lockdown began (Andrew et al, 2020). They are also more likely to have reduced their working hours as a result of caring responsibilities: 9% of all women age 20-65 reduced their working hours because of caring responsibilities compared with 5% of men. Among parents, these shares are likely to be much higher.

Research also shows that the amount of care done by men is much more sensitive to their employment status than is the case for women. For example, men who are furloughed or have lost their job substantially increased their hours on childcare (Sevilla and Smith, 2020). Among couples where both parents are working, mothers are more likely to be interrupted while working from home than fathers; half of the hours that mothers work at home are combined with childcare, compared with 30% of fathers’ hours (Andrew et al, 2020).

Related question: How has coronavirus affected the division of domestic labour?

How have single mothers fared?

For single mothers, the economic pressures associated with lockdown and the increase in caring responsibilities associated with school and nursery closures are likely to be felt particularly acutely. With one-in-four families with children being headed by single parents, most of them mothers, these women were already likely to be among the most disadvantaged.

While prior to the crisis, almost 70% of single parents were working, many were in part-time, low-paid jobs and faced a high risk of being poor. Research shows that before the crisis, working single mothers were more likely to be key workers, more likely to be employed in shutdown sectors and less likely to be in jobs that can be done from home (Gustafsson and McCurdy, 2020).

This, combined with nursery and school closures, and the fact that they many single parents are unable to share childcare, means that lockdown is likely to have taken a disproportionately heavy toll on their employment and wellbeing.

Real-time data from the Understanding Society (UKHLS) Covid-19 survey confirm that single parents have borne a heavy economic price. By April, 13% of single parents’ working hours had been cut as a result of caring responsibilities, and 46% had reduced their hours because they had been furloughed. While earnings have fallen for households across the UK, losses have been most severe for single parents: on average, single parents’ earnings have fallen more than twice as much as those of other households, with many single parent families facing considerable financial hardship (Crossley et al, 2020).

How has lockdown affected mental health?

Since lockdown, levels of psychological distress have increased markedly, with deteriorations in women’s mental health being twice as large as those for men (Etheridge and Spantig, 2020). Many factors may have contributed to this deterioration, including worries about families’ health, children’s education, social isolation, economic stress and increased time pressure among working parents.

Data from the UKHLS Covid-19 study, linked to information collected before lockdown, show redundancy and spending long hours on housework and childcare are linked to worsening mental health, particularly for women (Benzeval et al, 2020).

But differences in family and caring responsibilities make only a small contribution to the growing gap in men and women’s mental health, with social factors more important for explaining the gap and, in particular, the rise in loneliness (Etheridge and Spantig, 2020).

These early findings for April suggest that the lockdown was affecting mental health mainly because of its impact on social interactions, rather than as a result of labour market or financial effects. As worries about health start to abate and anxiety levels are reduced (Office for National Statistics, 2020) and as unemployment rises, economic concerns are likely to become increasingly important.

A large body of research evidence has linked men’s unemployment to poor mental health (Clark, 2003), and there is evidence that for women – and, in particular, for single mothers – the mental health benefits of work are substantial (Harkness, 2016). How these gender differences in mental health emerge as lockdown eases is likely to be highly dependent on how employment recovers, and whether children are able to return to schools and nurseries.

Related question: When should schools re-open?

What could be the longer-term effects on work and income?

How the crisis will play out in the longer term is hard to predict. In past recessions, including the one following the 2008/09 global financial crisis, men typically bore the brunt of job losses because they were most likely to be employed in sectors of the economy, such as construction and manufacturing, which are subject to cyclical variation (Harkness, 2013; Hoynes et al, 2012). While early predictions suggested that women’s employment in the service sector may mean that they would be worse hit than men in the current crisis, recent data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that – in line with previous recessions – manufacturing and construction have in fact seen the largest falls in output.

Following the 2008/09 recession, women responded to pressure on partners’ earnings by raising their labour market participation and working hours (Harkness and Evans, 2011), cushioning the downturn's impact on family incomes (Boushey, 2016). Such an outcome seems less likely this time: as the need for social distancing continues, the service sector and women’s employment look set to remain under pressure.

The need of parents to care for their children as schools and nurseries remain closed may be particularly damaging for gender equality. For some women, their career prospects may be permanently damaged. Research shows that women who return to work after taking time out to care for children frequently return to jobs with lower occupational status than they had previously held (Paull, 2018).

Those who have been forced to take time off as a result of school and nursery closures may face similar problems in the future, particularly if high levels of unemployment and reduced labour demand restrict job opportunities further. Losses in work experience, as a result of time out of the labour force or working part-time, may further restrict future earnings (Costa-Dias et al, 2018).

Overall then, unlike earlier recessions, which have increased women’s commitment to the labour market and reinforced their importance as family breadwinners, this crisis may be more likely to reverse these changes. It may presage a return to ‘male breadwinner’ families and reverse recent gains in single mothers’ employment, with long-term implications for women’s economic independence and risk of poverty (Moullin and Harkness, 2020).

Are there potential benefits for gender equality?

One potential benefit of the crisis for gender equality lies in its potential to change working practices. In response to the crisis, many employers have been developing their policies around working from home. If as a consequence, employers become more willing to offer home or flexible working, parents may benefit.

Related question: Who can work from home and how does it affect their productivity?

Specifically, increased access to home working opportunities may reduce the pay disadvantage associated with motherhood and part-time work, and provide new opportunities for mothers and fathers to combine work and care. Research has shown that gender pay gaps are lower in occupations with temporal flexibility, and if employers respond to the current crisis by changing workplace practices, this may benefit women in the longer term (Goldin, 2014).

A number of early predictions suggested that school closures may lead to greater gender equality in the longer term if fathers being at home with their children leads to greater involvement in their care. Studies have shown that parental leave-taking is associated with long lasting increases in fathers’ involvement in childcare and housework (Tamm, 2019).

The evidence to date suggests that men are becoming more involved in care, particularly if they are furloughed or have lost their job and their partner remains working. With many fathers now at home, their greater involvement in care – even if not equitably divided, may lead to a considerable change in behaviour over the long term, with potential benefits for gender equality.

Related question: How might the crisis affect children from poorer backgrounds?

Where can I find out more?

Work, care and gender during the Covid-19 crisis: Claudia Hupkau and Barbara Petrongolo combine UK survey data with occupation classifications to show the impact of the crisis on women’s labour market prospects and home production requirements.

How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? Alison Andrew and colleagues investigate how the crisis has affected mothers and fathers in two-parent opposite-gender families.

Baby steps: the gender division of childcare during the COVID19 pandemic: Almudena Sevilla and Sarah Smith document that UK families with young children have been doing the equivalent of a working week in childcare.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on gender equality: Titan Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey and Michèle Tertilt find reasons to hope that by promoting flexible work arrangements and putting the childcare obligations of both genders into plain sight, the crisis may reduce labour market barriers.

The impacts of Covid-19 are gendered – but there may be cause for hope: Former prime minister of Australia and Global Institute for Women’s Leadership chair Julia Gillard argues that this could be an opportunity for progress, not retreat, on gender equality

Who are UK experts on this issue?

Author: Susan Harkness
Picture by DGLimages on iStock
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