COVID is no time for the "Kumbaya" International Women's Day has become
We will be dancing to our diversity today. We should instead be marching in solidarity.
The pandemic has shown us once and for all that females everywhere share the same burdens, the same constraints, the same disadvantages. Women must find a way to join together so that our collective strength can demand livable, dignified, and equal lives.
The economic impact of the COVID pandemic has smacked women down all over the globe. Yet public discourse patronizes the predicament women are in and press coverage nearly always glances into a discussion of color or class, leaving the question of women hanging.
Women everywhere are clustered in the same underpaid “feminine” industries. They are similarly hampered by unequal burdens of family service, and are disadvantaged in their access to savings, credit, and capital. All of these aspects of the Double X Economy came home to roost in this crisis. But economic recovery plans are being drawn up that ignore the way this downturn smacked women down in a peculiar path of destruction. Nothing is being done that addresses the gendered basis of this economic crisis.
Female-dominant sectors like education, retail, and hospitality were shuttered first when the virus appeared because the personal contact they entail posed a greater contagion risk. These industries will be the last to return to normal. Data shows that women have lost more jobs than men; millions have already left the workforce permanently. Economic recovery plans should be focusing on those industries, to ensure that half the population doesn’t come out in a more unequal position than they had going in and that the flattening trend in female labor force participation observable before the pandemic doesn’t worsen after it is over.
Women are far more likely to work part-time than men, everywhere on the plant, which is attributable to the universal expectation that women will do most of the unpaid labor in the home and will sacrifice their own economic security to care for kids. Part-time jobs are the ones cut first in a recession. Hence, on that front, too, women were hit harder than men. But let’s ask ourselves the question why women work part-time more than men. We all know that answer: it’s because of childcare is scarce and expensive.
By a long shot, the biggest impact of the pandemic came when women were sent home to do the impossible: keep up with their jobs, take care of home and children, and become surrogate teachers, sometimes for more than one child. A woman working under these conditions is a magician if she can keep up her usual work pace and a genius if she can also maintain quality. Surely we have learned from this experience that remote working, long touted as the “solution” to women’s disadvantages in the workplace—is not going to be a boon for women’s “work-life balance.” “Technology” is not going to mysteriously erase the economic advantages men have in the economy.
Available data shows husbands and fathers are “helping,” but they are not taking up anywhere near half the load. Not surprisingly, women are losing their jobs and having their hours cut back at a higher rate than men. And there should be no doubt that when the plague is over, employers will penalize women for any dips in work output or quality, saying they chose to take on this unreasonable burden and therefore haven’t earned equal deserts.
But women did not make a choice. World society made it for them. If steps are not taken to buffer women from the negative effects of being forced, however briefly, back into a position of economic dependency and servitude, we run the risk they will revert to a history where they had no choices at all.
In the first month of the pandemic, the United Nations warned that women stood to lose 50 years of progress if world leaders did not attend to their specific economic circumstances during the COVID crisis. It’s really important for women to slow down and listen to that warning, to heed what it would mean in real life terms to lose 50 years of progress.
The emergence of women from a position of total economic dependency is recent and still fragile. Fifty years ago, women usually were not allowed to work if they were married. Countries frequently had “marriage bars” that actually banned women from work once betrothed. Many countries required women get their husband’s permission before they could work (Switzerland just lifted that restriction in 1989). Until the second half of the 20th century, women had been forbidden to own or control capital, to have bank accounts, to hold savings, or even to keep their own earnings. (The last US state law of that sort was struck down as unconstitutional in 1982.) We are less than a hundred years from a way of life where women had no legal identity of their own; we are only 50 years from a time they had no economic security of their own, either.
At the time the Second Wave hit (most places, about 1970), married women had to ask their husbands for money to buy anything. They were utterly dependent and therefore horribly vulnerable. Sentiment dressed this arrangement up as a wonderful “tradition,” but the brute economic fact is that these arrangements effectively made women paupers who had to keep their men happy at any cost to avoid being thrown into destitution. Jobs were classified by gender and the ones women could have did not pay enough to live on your own. So dependency on a man was the only real option a woman had—free choice?
Given that these were the conditions, you can see why the movement of women—specifically, married women—into the workplace in the 1970s was so historically important. This massive shift in economic and social life was an international phenomenon that occurred among the European and North American countries, as well as Australia, and has gradually moved around the world, most recently showing a complete and dramatic change in Latin America. Be aware: the reason women suddenly rushed into the labor force was that specific gender restrictions on their participation were lifted, not because of some abracadabra about education or anything else.
To grasp the outrage of our own moment, it is essential to understand that the influx of women into the labor supply since 1970 has driven economic growth in every country where it has occurred. In a real and demonstrable sense, working women is what made the wealthy countries rich and they continue to uplift the economies of the developing world.
What are women getting from their nations in return? Not much. Most countries have sucked up the female contribution to taxes, failed to enforce the laws that protect them, and—most impactful—refused to develop a childcare system. Over and over, we hear that universal childcare is something nations cannot afford. Yet a simple, back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the incremental tax revenue from only the women who would be in the labor market right now, but are not because of childcare, would pay for it (see The Double X Economy, Chapter 6). So why don't we have childcare provisions? There are, apparently, too many things that are more important to the men who run governments to pay for. Like weapons and tax breaks for the rich. Right. Not children’s wellbeing or women’s autonomy. How that for patriarchal economics?
During the same period that women came rushing into the workplace, fertility rates have tanked. Ladies and gentlemen, that is what causes the ageing population. Even with old folks like me living longer, we would still be OK if women had continued to have children at the replacement rate—2.1 per woman over the course of her life. Instead, populations are aging at a rate that national economies will not be able to support.
Even before the pandemic, women’s labor force participation had leveled off all across the Western countries. In the US, the number of working women had declined for the first time in 100 years. In sum, there was an economic imperative to address trends among working women even before the pandemic sent them home.
National leaders have ignored women’s economic quandary for so long, they actually think there’s such a thing as a “gender-neutral” recovery plan. How can any recovery plan that ignores the unique constraints and the overwhelming burden faced by females ever hope to make up for the loss that will come from massive numbers of women leaving the labor force?
Before the plague, working women were contributing about 40 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Their distinctive needs in effecting a recovery are therefore not a trivial matter, even from a macro-economic perspective. If those requirements are not addressed, national economies will struggle even more to return to normal. And women may indeed lose 50 years of hard-won freedom. In both economic and social justice terms, this issue deserves sustained and responsive attention from leadership.
So, today, while we’re “celebrating” our sisterhood, it is worth noticing that one of the things women are sharing is the consistent impact of the crisis on female livelihoods.
I could not have ordered up a better example of the Double X Economy than this pandemic has given us. If there was ever any doubt that the global economy of women is a worldwide phenomenon in which females struggle under the same economic constraints from one nation to the next, those misgivings have been thoroughly disproven by the uniform slap in the face the women’s economy endured in 2020.