Women’s balancing act

The pandemic has made it clear that women still carry the main burdens in the family

Taking care of children, cooking, washing clothes and cleaning while also teleworking has been the situation for many women since March. Those unable to work from home have seen a 100% reduction in their working hours, while others are unemployed and others have continued going to work with, in many cases, their children left alone at home. Among the worst hit have been households with one parent, of which 79% are female single-parent families. In fact, the data show that the pandemic in general has affected women the most. There has been more unemployment among women and more job insecurity, while they have also suffered more stress during the pandemic.

How does this fit with the concept of balancing work with family life? According to a study by the Centre for Opinion Studies carried out from May 4 to 15, some 36.5% of men spent five hours or less a week doing chores at home and 10.5% acknowledged that they usually did nothing. Lockdown and the health crisis - which is not yet over - have been experienced differently in each household according to gender.

This by no means implies that the relationship between women and men is some sort of struggle between good and evil, but the numbers do not lie. It should also be noted that, according to the experts, while data are available on heterosexual families, data on other types of unions are lacking. The virus has put the focus on every aspect of our lives, and one of these is gender equality. While for many years we have heard about the “glass ceiling”, that invisible barrier that prevents women from being promoted to management positions, Covid-19 has shone the light on the “sticky floor” concept. According to the Centre for Sociological Studies on Everyday Life and Work, it is “impossible for many women to get promoted in their jobs because they are mostly employed in labour-intensive sectors, with precarious working conditions, with poor pay and characterised by low levels of promotion.” These are sectors such as cleaning or those involving caring for people.

The Women, Business and Economy Observatory says that of the 715,000 people at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus in Catalonia, 65% are women. “These are feminised and insecure sectors that, paradoxically, are the ones that, by decree, have been established as essential since the state of alarm was declared. Why, if both paid and unpaid care work is vital, does it not have the recognition and value it deserves?” In June, the Catalan government published The Economic Impact of the Covid-19 Crisis from a Gender Perspective. The list of vulnerabilities it details, from the first page, is long: women are still the main ones responsible for the home and everything that goes with it, while mothers in single-parent families are the least likely to achieve a balance between work and family life, and some have been left without any income.

The survey by Lídia Farré and Libertad González carried out online from April 4 to 30 assesses the economic and social impact of Covid-19. Farré is a professor at Barcelona University and an associate researcher at the Institute of Economic Analysis. “The distribution of household chores has remained the same as before Covid-19. If it was 60% for women and 40% for men, it has continued like this, except for the task of going shopping, which is the only job that men have taken over. It doesn’t mean that men haven’t done anything, because the increased need for caring for children or the elderly, for cooking or cleaning has been very great. Men have increased the number of hours they spend on domestic tasks, but we have not reached 50-50. In fact, in couples in which both have teleworked, the most logical thing would have been to share it like this, but that’s not what we’ve seen in the surveys.” Although the research is ongoing, it has already been shown that gender roles are well-established and have very deep roots.

Something else that is key, experts say, is motherhood. The roles that society attributes to women - or that women have come to accept - become very defined when children arrive. Yet, Farré reflects on the positive change brought about by the crisis and compares it to when fathers began taking paternity leave and “they became more involved in lifelong parenting.” One study, she says, found “a positive impact from men’s contribution to household chores.” And she continues: “The hope is that because the lockdown was much longer than paternity leave these men have increased their participation. There has been an apprenticeship during the lockdown! There are fathers who are now more aware of the situation: that the kids do extracurricular activities on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that the fridge needs filling to be able to make lunch... If during this period men have taken their children to the park or spent more time with them, why can’t they go on to finish work early and go to pick them up from school?”

There is reason for hope, but there are opinions of all kinds. There are also those who think we are going too slow, that the steps being taken cannot satisfy the desire for change. A survey on the use of time and the lockdown from the Centre for Opinion Studies provides shocking numbers. Carried out between May 4 and 15, one question was whether there was an equal distribution of tasks. Some 42.6% of men made a very generous assessment of themselves and said they already equally shared the tasks before the lockdown. However, only 27.1% of women said that was the case. When asked if housework was shared among the whole family in the lockdown, 75.3% of men said it was but only 54.2% of women said that was the case. Whether the men magnified their role or minimised that of their partner, what is clear is that the numbers do not add up.

The Complutense University’s psychopathology research group on affective and psychotic disorders studied the psychological response to Covid-19 in Spain. Symptoms of depression (27.8% in women, 17% in men) and anxiety (26.8% in women and 13.2% in men) have been different for each gender. Part of the mental burden is due to management. With children at home and parents teleworking, who gets to use the computer when, and who works early in the day and who later on? Organisation is perhaps the most important aspect of home life and is also the most invisible. One expert says this: “Men may have gone shopping, but who wrote the list?”

Co-responsible men

Mar Gaya, founder of the Igualando consultants, specialises in the implementation of equality plans in businesses. She is VP of the 50a50 organisation, which promotes the equal participation of women and men in management positions. “It’s not the Covid-19 crisis but the shortcomings of the system have been highlighted. If we think everything is due to Covid, once it goes then everything should be resolved. But it won’t be because it’s structural.” Yet, the areas that Covid has illuminated are many. One is clear: to what extent do households have the means to manage themselves? “We’re always talking about women balancing work and family life, but it’s time to talk about co-responsibility and to focus on the other 50%, which are fathers, children, siblings, and integrating the male figure into care.”

Gaya is still analysing the scenario. “There’s a pre-Covid image of work-life balance I’ve always rejected: a woman with a child on her back in front of the computer. I tried it some years ago and it was impossible! Now, with lockdown, there’s been a lack of co-responsibility at all levels. Mothers teaching kids how to do fractions while reviewing a work document and attending to grandma... There’s a study that says a woman can work without interruption for up to an hour. For a man, it’s two.”

The Women, Business and Economy Observatory highlighted in 2017 that Catalonia’s GDP would go up by 23% if care and domestic work were quantified and included. If we go out for dinner, we can spend 20 euros on pizza and it is reflected in GDP. If we make the pizza at home, only the value of the raw materials goes to GDP. Gaya says: “What’s work and what isn’t? In the end it’s about whether the work is paid.” The most paradigmatic case is women doing household chores. “It’s the first time in history that they have had any help! So what does the system consider to be work? ”

Júlia Mas is a sociologist and gender expert who has been involved in gender equality for years. “The general picture I get from lockdown is that women have carried much of the burden. There are two levels: women who were working outside the home and those who weren’t, and those who had family responsibilities taking care of children or other dependents and those who did not.”

Mas continues: “It’s very positive and interesting that many women are saying they want to make changes. Unfortunately, a lot of changes need to be made. And everything is connected: a lot of things depend on what kind of work a woman has outside the home, because the sectors with more women are the ones with the worst conditions and with the most impact on health and stability.” Mas is adamant: “Lockdown has led to situations of injustice, of overwhelming burdens.”

Is teleworking good?

There are diverse opinions where telework is concerned. It can be a breakthrough, they say, if it is done by both men and women. Yet, they also say it is imperative that it does not become a trap for women in which they end up with three working days: a day of work, another looking after the home, and a third thanks to technology that allows us to extend our working day. Farré adds: “I trust that there’ll be a change towards a more progressive way of doing things. We have to be optimistic. Yet, telework can’t become a feature of women’s work!” And Gaya recommends “not losing sight of co-responsibility.” “Everything else, telework, technology, are just tools. Without co-responsibility, telework is a poisoned gift,” she adds.

Mas is one of those who is suspicious. “I’m very critical of teleworking. If there’s no regulation and if you don’t understand what it means, it’s complicated. The fact that we’re home does not mean total availability. It also affects such things as collective rights.” There is no obvious solution, says Mas.

What awaits us

Libertad González, associate professor of economics at the Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, and co-author, with Lídia Farré, of the survey to assess the economic and social impact of Covid-19, reflects on advances in equality that the crisis may leave us with. “Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. Perhaps in some households, where the man, due to his circumstances, has become more involved in care and household tasks during the lockdown, he will maintain this greater involvement over time. But in most cases, the crisis has strengthened the traditional division of labour and this can have more lasting effects, for example, women who ask for leave to continue caring for children, or who, due to family responsibilities, take longer to look for work if they have lost their job.” González is also critical when it comes to teleworking. “We see in the data that teleworking is a bit more common among women, and this can also be a trap, relegating women to the home environment and creating the expectation that as they are at home they can also take care of household chores.” Like others, González points out that small efforts, such as a change of mindset, are basic. “Many of us internalise the idea that it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the children, or at least to a greater extent than the father. Changing these social norms is much more difficult than introducing gender-neutral family policies. If either parent can cut short their working day, why do mothers always do it? Co-responsibility is a matter for both men and women.”

So, now what? González is sure that all this will have effects, some in the long run. “One will be an increase in the gender gap in the labour market – and at home. This crisis has affected feminised sectors much more than previous crises. This, together with the increase in the need for care, and more teleworking, can lead to women going backwards in the sense of relegating themselves to the home and accentuating the traditional division of labour: the man goes out to work and the woman stays at home. Public policies must pay attention and take this into account and do everything possible to offset these effects of the pandemic.”



Tasks outside the house

The survey on the economic and social impact of Covid-19, by Lídia Farré and Libertad González, has brought to light various issues. For example, men have become more involved in household chores and childcare. Still, there’s only one area in which men do more than women: shopping. For some experts, in queueing for the supermarket men have responded to their role as provider and protector. As barriers are raised, we have also seen quite a few men out with their children. While all progress is good, it must be noted that these activities take place outside the home, whether it is taking the dog out or taking out the rubbish. Despite this rise in domestic activity among men, the traditional roles continue.


“Women don’t have a caring gene!”

I’ve seen a lot of women who have had to take the lead and take on the family burden.
I’d add the women doing essential work, and especially single women with family responsibilities and dependents. The value of care work must be recognised. Lockdown has meant that in general care work has fallen to women.
What are the consequences?
If you were a worker in an essential sector, such as health or food, you suffered from exposure, the working conditions, the fear of infecting the family... Or the chaos in care homes that was very stressful, mostly for women, who are the main caregivers. It’s time care work was distributed, and not just with men, but society needs to be aware that without this work nothing would function.
Has lockdown aggravated these women’s situation?
It has. The consequences of lockdown have been terrible for many. I’ve done a lot of video conferencing with men and women, and if an attendee had a child on their lap during the meeting, it was almost always a woman.
Maybe a positive thing about all of this is that some women will wake up to the situation.
Women are often feminists due to personal experiences rather than theoretical arguments. Sometimes you have to experience it to be aware of what’s happening and to see that the origin is the division of labour according to sex, which has always existed, but which got worse in the 20th century, when women decided to become part of the paid workforce worldwide. This is where the question of work-life balance arises.
And co-responsibility?
Having children and taking care of people is everyone’s business, not just women’s. We’re not born with a gene that puts us in the role of caregiver. However, all the paid caring jobs are very feminised and are also the lowest paid. In families, it’s good for people to take care of each other but that burden should not just fall on women. A balance needs to be struck.

Women on the front line

Many essential jobs are done by women, in sectors concerned with health, food, cleaning, or caring for people. This means women are more exposed to the virus. As for mental health, Judit Vall, a professor at Barcelona University, says: “We’ve seen during the lockdown, there were four aspects of mental health that have deteriorated. People have had more trouble sleeping, feel overwhelmed and stressed, have been less able to cope with daily difficulties, and have confessed to feeling unhappy and depressed. These effects are substantially greater among women.”

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