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Female employment in the time of corona

Müge Süer (HU Berlin)

“If scientists do not develop the coronavirus vaccine soon, then moms will.”, states a recent meme about coronavirus and its effects on women. Even though this topic does not seem to be at the top of agendas today, we need to start talking about the gendered impact of the Corona Crisis. Today, more than half of the world population is facing confinement to decrease the spread (“Coronavirus latest: Global coronavirus infections top 1 million”). In the following, I will assess the impact of this confinement on women’s employment and describe why it is crucial to analyze asymmetric effects for men and women.

The OECD’s SIGI 2019 Report (OECD, 2019) reveals that globally, the hours spent by women on domestic and care work are two to ten times more than men’s. It is therefore plausible to assume that confinement not only increases the amount of domestic work; it will also create a substantial risk for women to carry out a bigger portion of it. The report also underlines that the world still sees childcare as a female task. Thus, combined with the closure of schools and day-care centers, confinement might cause a reinforcement of the stereotypical female care giver position in families. This reinforcement entails risks to generate a broader impact for the entire society through previously studied channels: self-stereotyping (Coffman, 2014), gender role effects leading to gender math gaps (Nollenberger, Rodriguez-Planas, Sevilla, 2016), and lack of exposure to powerful women (Beaman, Chattopadhyay, Duflo, Pande, Topalova, 2009).

Second, any type of imbalanced domestic burden is likely to create additional performance issues for working women. Sadly, the burden is not limited to increased housework. For example, the reported domestic violence in Berlin increased by 10% during March 2020 (“Kriminalität sinkt insgesamt, aber häusliche Gewalt nimmt zu”). Apart from harmful psychological and physical effects, an issue of  performance-related female employment problems arises. Under the current circumstances, being given the chance to work from home may not mean equal chances for men and women. On the contrary, expecting the same performance may imply a set-back for women’s promotional chances, as well as other potential disadvantages in work life. The relevant OECD (2017) policy recommendations are unfortunately not all applicable during confinement; however the applicable ones such as awareness campaigns, information and training programs, violence against women surveys, financial, medical and psychological help should be included in government and company agendas.

From a different perspective, building on Goldin (2014)’s cost-of-flexibility idea, there is also a possibility to turn the crisis into an opportunity. One of the last remaining drivers of the gender wage gap is payment advantages provided for inflexible and long working hours. The increased telecommuting and digitalization due to the Corona Crisis entails the unique chance to permanently create a more flexible work life, which would be beneficial for parents in the long run (Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey & Tertilt, 2020). The digitalization can certainly help us shaping an environment where we reward outcomes instead of long working hours. But this will depend on how successful we act on securing gender equality. Under unequal domestic burden, the current crisis may also deepen the existing gaps.

It is natural to expect this crisis to affect global employment for everyone. However, in order to mitigate its negative impact, we should scrutinize all the asymmetries between men and women employment, and already shape the future by taking them into account. Focusing only on aggregate numbers in our analysis might overshadow the potential risks and create more inequalities for females in the post crisis period.

Alon, T., Doepke, M., Olmstead-Rumsey, J., & Tertilt, M. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality (No. crctr224_2020_163). University of Bonn and University of Mannheim, Germany.

Beaman, L., Chattopadhyay, R., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2009). Powerful women: does exposure reduce bias?. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(4), 1497-1540.

Coffman, K. B. (2014). Evidence on self-stereotyping and the contribution of ideas. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 129(4), 1625-1660. 

Goldin, C. (2014). A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter. American Economic Review, 104(4), 1091-1119.

Nollenberger, N., Rodríguez-Planas, N., & Sevilla, A. (2016). The math gender gap: The role of culture. American Economic Review, 106(5), 257-61.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2017). The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle, OECD Publishing. 

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). SIGI 2019 Global Report: Transforming Challenges into Opportunities, Social Institutions and Gender Index, OECD Publishing.


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