EU Science Hub

International Women’s Day: with every crisis comes an opportunity

During the lockdowns, families across Europe shared domestic work more equally.
During the lockdowns, families across Europe shared domestic work more equally.
Mar 08 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disproportionate burdens that women carry, but it might also present an opportunity to challenge outdated social norms and gender stereotypes.

As healthcare workers, caregivers and essential workers, women have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 response around the world.

Unfortunately, women are also bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of the crisis.

For countless women, the unpaid domestic work burden has exploded, and many have simultaneously lost their income.

Nevertheless, some signs exist that the alternative work arrangements forced on some families could be paving the way for a more equal distribution of responsibilities in the future.  

60 years away from reaching gender equality

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, the EU was at least 60 years away from reaching gender equality already before the pandemic.

The majority of the EU Member States thus entered the crisis upholding traditional gender norms, whereby women are responsible for childcare and household tasks.

The pandemic has all but slowed down the already fragile progress towards gender equality.

A JRC report published in April 2020 estimated that women would continue to be responsible for the vast majority of the additional childcare and household tasks resulting from the COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures.

For many women, the pandemic has led to a massive additional physical and mental burden, with many mothers struggling to simultaneously juggle childcare, home schooling, housework and – if they were lucky to still be employed – their own job.

The risk was particularly high for women who were already in vulnerable positions, including single mothers.

The economic toll of COVID-19 on women

Another JRC analysis shows that the jobs held by women were more likely to be subject to lockdown measures than those held by men, and women were in overall terms more likely to lose their jobs all together.

In Europe, this additional risk was particularly high in Austria, Romania, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Czechia.

While men are also facing unprecedented challenges, there is a risk that women will suffer more long-term disadvantages in the labour market, leading to a bigger gender gap in employment.

The negative trends are already starting to show in the official labour market statistics.

Across the EU-27 countries, the unemployment rates increased more for women than for men after June 2020, reaching 8.1% and 7.3% respectively. 

As a consequence, the gender gap in the unemployment rate increased, reaching 0.8 % in the third quarter of 2020.

There are signs of hope

There are some signs that the pandemic could also spur change in a more positive direction.

During the lockdowns, families across Europe shared domestic work more equally and teleworking practices enabled dads to spend more time with their children.

In some cases, where the father was able to telework but the mother was not, the father had to step into the role previously covered by the mother and take care of the majority of the childcare and household work.

If flexible working and telework became the norm also after the pandemic, a permanent shift in the distribution of household duties could remain.

The scientists remind that these changes will only lead to permanent positive developments if followed up by adequate policy measures.

The European Commission has just published its 2021 report on equality between women and men in the EU and launched the Gender Equality Strategy Monitoring Portal.

One year ago, the European Commission adopted its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the first deliverable on President von der Leyen’s commitment to a Union of Equality.

The Gender Equality report marks the first anniversary of the Strategy and takes stock of the progress made and the challenges ahead.

JRC reports:

How will the COVID-19 crisis affect existing gender divides in Europe?

Economic sectors at risk due to COVID-19 disruptions: will men and women in the EU affected similarly?