This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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With COVID-19 restrictions being gradually lifted, our lives are returning to normality and we are slowly—but firmly—becoming aware of social and economic consequences of the pandemic, as well as the gendered nature of this last crisis. The latter is reflected in the overwhelming representation of women among the essential frontline workers, such as in the education, health and social care sectors, as well as the retail industry. These tasks usually could not be performed remotely, which resulted in higher risks of contagion, heavy workloads and disruption of work-life balance for millions of women. What is more, the sectors of the economy most severely hit by the pandemic are amongst the most feminised, which has once again disproportionally exposed women to the loss of employment and their income, and exacerbated the existing gender inequalities in the area of work.
The dynamic in the public sphere has been mirrored in the private lives of women. Under the existing conditions of unequal distribution of unpaid care and household work, women’s domestic burden got even heavier by the unavailability of, or lack of access to formal quality care services. With schools and childcare facilities closed parents, and especially mothers, were most often the ones providing childcare and home schooling, which contributed to additional physical and psychological pressure.
It is crucial that the recovery remains guided by investment and not by austerity measures that were applied in previous crises.
As indicated above, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the many layers of deeply rooted gender inequalities, proving that recovery from the pandemic can only be successful if it entails systemic and holistic solutions for building a resilient, gender-equal society. It is crucial that the recovery remains guided by investment and not by austerity measures that were applied in previous crises. While green and digital transformation remain the leading objectives, the economic and social recovery after the pandemic—as well as the response to emerging challenges, such as those brought by the war in Ukraine—can only be achieved through better support and adequate investment in social policies, care and other parts of economy with high impact on gender equality. Furthermore, the crucial steps towards recovery and resilience require additional involvement of women in decision- and policy-making, as well as mainstreaming the gender equality perspective consistently throughout all policy areas.
The forthcoming European Care Strategy, to be presented by the European Commission in the third quarter of this year, presents an excellent opportunity to address these challenges and to live up to the expectations of our citizens for a more resilient, social Europe of equal rights and opportunities. The European Parliament will reflect on this opportunity with its own-initiative report Towards a European Action on Care, jointly prepared by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. As its co-rapporteur, I recognise that the way we approach care and formulate our policies in this field has a major impact on human rights, as every individual gives and receives care in a certain period of their life.
We need European action, and the European Care Strategy that is centred on individual rights and needs of both care recipients and providers, with special attention on the rights of women who represent a majority in both groups. It should target the needs of people in critical periods and lay the ground for continuity of care services throughout entire life course, while fostering solidarity between generations and gender equality as the overarching principles.
Accessible, affordable and readily available early childcare does not only enrich the life of every child but also disburdens lives of their parents, enabling them to better navigate between their professional and personal lives and equally divide care responsibilities. Care responsibilities keep as many as 7.7 million women in the EU out of the labour market, and make women prone to changing their employment, taking up part-time jobs and reducing their working hours once they have children, while the impact of childcare on men’s work patterns remains almost insignificant
The tendency to have more career breaks and interruptions due to care obligations, as well as higher propensity to take on precarious or part-time work, continues throughout the life course, with women dominating among the informal carers also for the adult dependents.
The negative effects of the lack of accessible, affordable and readily available quality childcare on women’s career paths and choices do not end when children grow older. The tendency to have more career breaks and interruptions due to care obligations, as well as higher propensity to take on precarious or part-time work, continues throughout the life course, with women dominating among the informal carers also for the adult dependents. Structural reasons, and above all financial constraints (as illustrated in the OECD health working paper entitled The effectiveness of social protections for long-term care in old age), are the main cause of informal carers (75 % of which are women) carrying the disproportionate burden of long-term care. Once in need of long-term care themselves, women face difficulties in covering the long-term care expenses due to the persisting gender pay and pension gaps.
A more gender-equal care economy requires co-operation and exchange of best practices between the Member States, as well as between the EU and OECD in sharing their research and knowledge. Economy and human rights are not mutually exclusive. Support to care economy, creation of new quality jobs, and professionalisation of care that would relief the burden carried by informal carers, are the key steps towards an economy that works for people. Investment into care, therefore, should not be treated as an expenditure, but an investment in a more resilient society and economy.