Who is Doing the Work?


The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently published Coronavirus and gender: More chores for women set back gains in equality  It discusses a recent United Nations study and asserts that this pandemic is more seriously impacting women than men. The foundations asserted therein include both professional ("employment and education") as well as personal ("mental and physical health"). It is suggested that the impacts are both immediate and portend long-term effects.  

Essentially, the study concludes that the vast majority (75%) of the "unpaid work," or "chores" performed daily on the planet is estimated to be performed by women. This comes from a variety of tasks and engagements, but "for every one hour of unpaid work done by men, three hours was done by women." The authors conclude that the COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 has exacerbated that disparity through what is labelled collectively as a "care burden" that may refer in a particular instance to care for children, elderly, the ill, or others. One quoted source opined that the impact on women "has at least doubled" during the pandemic.

A graphic in the article attempts to visually capture the extent to which unpaid "care work" was performed by men and women before the pandemic. There are stark differences around the globe. In Canada it represents women performed 1.5 times the volume of such work compared to men before COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2. In the United States is was 1.6 times. However, in Egypt, it was 9.2 times. European countries were largely similar to America (Germany 1.6x, France 1.7x, Brittan 1.8x), while being more pronounced in Asia (Japan 4.8x, Thailand 3.2x), Africa (Ethiopia 2.9x, Ghana 3.4x) and South America (Brazil 2.3x, Argentina 2.5x). 

These direct impacts are discussed. They are instances of tasks and responsibilities that will perhaps be all too familiar to some by this stage of the pandemic. Discussed are home-schooling and other challenges added to a variety of daily tasks that existed long before. Those direct impacts are perhaps more readily understood. However, the article also notes more subtle impacts such as the overall impact upon the ability to concentrate upon work tasks. Anyone who has concurrently juggled multiple responsibilities will likely appreciate the increase in stress from interruptions and multi-tasking. 

As the volume and pace of interruptions changes, so may the ability to focus on discreet tasks during the workday. There are also examples cited beyond the physical tasks of daily living. One individual quoted expressed a more generalized stress associated with an array of worries and concerns including overall child well being, scheduling of family events (birthdays), the need for interactions (scheduling Zoom meet-ups), and more as contributing to the impact of the pandemic. 

These challenges, the authors note, result in "high levels of stress and mental health challenges" in a general sense, but "particularly for women." There seems to be some acknowledgement that the pandemic alone is a cause of some volume of the present stress, but a UN statistician concludes that it is also "partly as a result of the increased workloads." There are increased hours noted in some instances. The implication being that pandemic effects are on both intensity of daily activity and duration. 

There is discussion in the article of "traditional gender norms" and perceptions of family contribution to the household. In the pandemic, there is discussion of children joining in the workload, but a conclusion from the UN that in that context, "parents are more likely to cite help from daughters than sons" in the context of this unpaid work. Thus, a perception of family units redistributing chores or contributions, but in less than equitable manners.

The conclusion of some is that "women can have it all," referring to professional and home life. However, the cited perspectives on that are tinged with caveats. One cited source explains that "economic position" influences the potential of such balance, as well as whether male family members are "supportive." There is perception that the impact of pandemic is disparate on various economic groups, and that both economic reality and "gender norms . . . make it impossible for the average women to be able to have it all."

Ultimately, the authors conclude that there is a systemic disregard for the importance and impact of the work involved in day-to-day of home and family. The "women's unpaid work," even without the added stress of a pandemic, is "undervalued" if it is recognized at all. The authors conclude that the impact of this work critical in the sustenance of families. One concludes that it is this work that is "the social safety net for the world."

The pandemic has impacted the volume and intensity of such work. However, the authors note that the pandemic has also "shone a spotlight" on the importance and implications of such unpaid work. While there can be no denying the value of care and similar tasks,, there is a tendency to discount this effort, to "undervalue," because "there wasn't compensation involved." 

There are thus short-term, and thus urgent implications. The "pivot" of the pandemic is seen as contributing to stress both in the intensity and length of the work day. It is entirely likely that the introduction of new tasks is similarly stressful (was anyone really prepared to suddenly become a home school teacher last spring?)

However, the long-term impacts are worthy of consideration also. There is evidence that women are leaving the workforce. In fact, the article notes that about 1.1 million Americans "dropped out of the labor force" in September 2020. The statistics for that month demonstrate that about 80% (865,000) of that total was women. There are potentials for long-term career detriment to result from employment gaps, depending upon their duration and characterization. 

Ultimately, there is advocacy in the BBC article for "governments and businesses" to recognize the impact of "unpaid work." The United Nations asserts that such recognition must be accompanied by support in the form of "extra family leave, or extra paid leave, and keeping childcare centers open" in order to facilitate the continued and expanded participation in the workforce. While the immediacy of the pandemic is implicated in the author's discussion, one perceives a broader perspective there also. 

And, of course any such drive toward leave may have implication in either direct or indirect costs passed to the consumer(s) of goods or services in the professional realm. In that sense, it is possible that comparative economic advantage may persist in both micro and macro senses across a globe that demonstrates significant inconsistency as regards workforce participation, unpaid work performed, home work performed, and even recognition of fundamental equal rights. In addressing the inequities, what challenges will those economic factors imply or impress?

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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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