The COVID-19 Crisis and Gender Inequality: New and Old Challenges for Europe

After the shocking outbreak of COVID-19, societies are now reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on people’s lives and daily arrangements, wondering about how to deal with the economic crisis that is waiting just around the corner. In recent weeks, stimulated by the explosion of housework and care demands that households in whole Europe are facing, observers have started pointing to the gendered impact of COVID-19. Is there anything new or has the outbreak simply unveiled old challenges?

The gendered impact of COVID-19 management is not the effect of an isolated event, but it builds on pre-existing conditions. These, in turn, result from structural and cultural processes further shaped by previous crises. This interconnection is a crucial aspect for understanding how the current situation could evolve and what the outcomes could be in terms of social inequalities.

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Nach dem schockierenden Ausbruch von COVID-19 wird in den Gesellschaften nun zunehmend  über die Auswirkungen der Pandemie auf das Leben der Menschen und wie sie jetzt ihren Alltag gestalten, nachgedacht. Viele fragen sich,  wie sie mit der Wirtschaftskrise umgehen sollen, die vor der Tür steht. Angeregt durch die explosionsartige Zunahme der Hausarbeit und des Pflegebedarfs, mit der Haushalte in ganz Europa konfrontiert sind, wurde in den letzten Wochen vermehrt auf geschlechtsspezifische Auswirkungen von COVID-19 hingewiesen. Gibt es dabei etwas Neues, oder hat der Ausbruch der Krankheit einfach nur alte Fragen wieder neu aufgeworfen?

Die geschlechtsspezifischen Auswirkungen des Umgangs mit COVID-19  sind nicht die Auswirkungen eines isolierten Ereignisses, sondern bauen auf bereits bestehenden gesellschaftlichen Zuständen auf. Diese wiederum resultieren aus strukturellen und kulturellen Prozessen, die bereits durch frühere Krisen weiter geprägt wurden. Diese Verflechtung ist ein entscheidender Aspekt, um zu verstehen, wie sich die gegenwärtige Situation entwickeln konnte und welche Folgen soziale Ungleichheiten haben könnten.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.9


Devaluated jobs: Gender inequalities in care work 

The social recognition of jobs does not always pair with the economic value of work. For weeks, people have applauded health workers as modern-day heroes fighting on the frontlines against the virus. These include not only doctors and nurses, but also cleaners and medical auxiliaries.

Most health workers are women. The whole care sector in Europe, which altogether represents 21% of the European labor force, is strongly feminized: 93% of childcare workers, 86% of personal care workers in health services, and 95% of domestic cleaners and helpers are women [1].

Despite these figures, the sector is characterized by vertical segregation, with mainly men occupying higher positions. Furthermore, jobs in these sectors are the lowest paid, and women tend to be contracted with temporary and precarious jobs more often than men. However, these inequalities are not only affecting women in care work. Women tend to be less paid than men, regardless of the economic sector. In Europe, the gender pay gap (which considers hourly wage differences) is 16%, while the gender gap in overall earnings (which considers working time) is much higher, at 40%. The situation is worse for working women with children below six years old: they earn 48.5% less than men with children of the same age [2].

Inequalities in unpaid care work: Caring is still a woman’s business

Gender inequalities in paid care work interact with those in the domestic unpaid care work. How do partners decide who-does-what to fulfill the functioning needs of the household? Rarely, this happens with an explicit agreement. More often, it is a result of implicit gender role socialization and reciprocal expectations. Furthermore, when it comes to negotiating unpaid care work distribution, household’s employment patterns and relative economic resources provide partners with different bargaining power.  Moreover, the interaction between structural and cultural components has a relevant role in defining households’ care arrangements.

Within the couple, partners deal with the confrontation of their individual gender ideology, which refers to “the underlying concept of an individual’s level of support for a division of paid work and family responsibilities that is based on the notion of separated spheres” [3]. But the inter-individual negotiation between partners takes place in a societal context, which may foster a gendered separation of responsibilities instead of challenging traditional gender roles. Think, for example, about the opportunities given by work−family balance policies supporting different family models. In the background of some policies, men are still considered as the household’s main (or only) earner and the measures offered to support family actually risk reducing mothers’ labor market participation because staying at home is more convenient, as it happens with the child allowances [4]. In contrast, policies and measures like parental leave schemes engaging fathers support dual-earners/dual caregivers family model, fostering therefore gender equality [5].

The fair distribution of unpaid care work is still a challenge. Among working women, 81% are involved in the unpaid care of children on a daily basis, vulnerable members of the family, and housework. In contrast, 48% of men are engaged in unpaid daily care. Furthermore, women dedicate themselves to care more intensively than men (3.9 hours a day versus 2.6 hours of men) [6].

Looking a bit closer at the household arrangements, the traditional model—with women as the main caregivers—is nothing new and is still the rule for most households in Europe. This is especially true in Slovakia, Czechia, and Bulgaria, where this is the case for at least 8 respondents out of 10. But they are common for at least 5 out of 10 respondents even in more egalitarian countries (like Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark).

Figure 1: Distribution of household care work arrangements (%)

Source: Lomazzi and Crespi [7] based on ISSP2012 [8]. Tasks included doing the laundry, caring for sick family members, shopping for groceries, household cleaning, and preparing meals.

Is COVID-19 to blame? Mmm, not really

During the lockdown, countries have applied a variety of restrictions, which have often implied working from home or suspending work activity. What institutional measures have been taken to support both parents with the competing demands of caring and working from home? What measures have been taken to support the return to work of both parents?

Gender inequalities in unpaid care work are not due to COVID-19. But this emergency highlights the weakness of societal structures and cultural backgrounds, which still recalls traditional gender roles almost everywhere.

We don’t yet have enough data to analyze the current scenario and explore to what extent the contingencies due to COVID-19 and its institutional management will affect gender relations in the long term. But we know from existing data that we shouldn’t be surprised if women are and will be more affected than men, or if working mothers in Europe are exposed to more risks concerning job insecurity, lower salaries, or employment segregation. This has already been so. The COVID-19 emergency, just like any other humanitarian emergency, emphasizes and exacerbates pre-existing gender inequalities.

Recent data from the European Values Study (EVS) provides information on the cultural aspects where the future crisis may nest. Countries display very different shares of people thinking that, when jobs are scarce, men should have the priority, ranging from 2% in Iceland to 57.3% in Armenia. These big differences reflect the variety of existing gender cultures and give insights into additional potential risks for gender equality in the coming years. Considering the severe economic consequences of COVID-19, what can we expect to happen? What can be prevented?

Figure 2: Agreement to the statement “When jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job than women” (% “agree” + “strongly agree”)


Source: EVS—Data collected in 2017−19[9]

Can COVID-19 be an opportunity?

From existing data, we also know what has happened with the previous economic crisis. The austerity measures implemented by Europe and member states have resulted in gender equality policy cuts, regardless of the principles of the European gender mainstreaming strategy [10]. For example, in Spain the implementation both of elder care programs and the paternity leave schemes have been postponed; the same happened to childcare programs in Italy and the United Kingdom. In general, budget reductions turned in cuts in care services and the issues of work-family balance have been marginalized [10][11][12]. A gender-blind approach to austerity resulted therefore in the reduction of available opportunities for women’s economic participation and men’s engagement in care, endangering gender equality.

Policy-makers should avoid the same mistakes by taking into account the intersection of inequalities, giving value to care work, extending the attention from childcare to long-term care, and implementing policy packages.

Europe doesn’t need a symptomatic answer but a systematic strategy able to tackle gender inequalities by bringing together both structural and cultural components.


[1] Eurostat, Labour Force Survey 2018. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/EU_labour_force_survey_%E2%80%93_data_and_publication

[2] European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2018). European Working Conditions Survey Integrated Data File, 1991−2015. [Data collection]. 7th Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 7363, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7363-7.

[3] Davis, S. N., & Greenstein, T. N. (2009). Gender Ideology: Components, Predictors, and Consequences. Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), 87–105, p. 89. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-070308-115920

[4] Almqvist, A.L., & Duvander, A.Z. (2014). Changes in gender equality? Swedish fathers’ parental leave, division of childcare and housework. Journal of Family Studies, 20(1), 19–27. https://doi.org/10.5172/jfs.2014.20.1.19

[5] Thévenon, O. (2013). Drivers of Female Labour Force Participation in the OECD. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, 145. https://doi.org/10.1787/5k46cvrgnms6-en

[6] European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2018). European Working Conditions Survey Integrated Data File, 1991−2015. [Data collection]. 7th Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 7363, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7363-7.

[7] Lomazzi, V., & Crespi, I. (2019). Gender mainstreaming and gender equality in Europe. Policies, culture and public opinion. Bristol: Policy Press, p. 87. https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/gender-mainstreaming-and-gender-equality-in-europe

[8] ISSP Research Group. (2016). International Social Survey Programme: Family and Changing Gender Roles IVISSP 2012. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA5900 Data file Version 4.0.0. https://search.gesis.org/research_data/ZA5900

[9] EVS. (2020). European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version3.0.0, https://doi.org/10.4232/1.13511https://search.gesis.org/research_data/ZA7500

[10] Briskin, L. (2014). Austerity, union policy and gender equality bargaining. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 20(1), 115–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/1024258913515161

[11] Rubery, J. (2015) Austerity and the Future for Gender Equality in Europe, ILR Review, 68(4):715–741. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0019793915588892

[12] Lomazzi, V., & Crespi, I. (2019). Gender mainstreaming and gender equality in Europe. Policies, culture and public opinion. Bristol: Policy Press, p. 87.   https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/gender-mainstreaming-and-gender-equality-in-europe

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