The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a “care crisis” in our homes. All that invisible work that women do has become increasingly visible because suddenly, everyone’s at home.
When no one can leave to go to work or school, what happens to all that unpaid domestic labour?
Leah Ruppanner, the Associate Professor of Sociology from the University of Melbourne, who told us all a few weeks ago on the Women are the Business podcast that women need to go on a chore strike, says it’s all up in the air.
“What I didn’t anticipate, was that COVID-19 was going to come and bam, just hit us in the face, and show us everything that we’ve been talking about for decades in a day,” she says.
In the latest episode of the Women are the Business podcast, two experts seek to answer the question: can we get to the other side of the pandemic without making gender inequity worse? And, just maybe, could we make things better?
Ruppanner thinks it important that we examine the gender dynamics that are playing out in the domestic sphere at the moment, now that we’re all together. Are women still, by default, picking up all the housework and childcare, even if both partners are in the home?
Unfortunately, Ruppanner bets that yes, most women are still picking up the load regardless of changed circumstances.
“Who is being interrupted throughout the day by the kids and who is not? And whose job is seen as more important for the family?” Ruppanner asks in the podcast.
“This is all part of the power dynamic, and it’s going to lead to women doing more of the work and maintaining boundaries to ensure their husbands are productive.”
While the pandemic has shown us the “care crisis” we all live with day-to-day, it’s also highlighted that most of Australia’s essential jobs are done by women.
It is healthcare workers, aged care workers, childcare workers, who are actually fighting this pandemic, and we’re starting to realise these jobs are also essential for the economy. They’re mostly done by women.
“How we value them, how we view them, and how we treat these jobs hasn’t been equivalent to other jobs,” Ruppanner says.
Experts are also predicting that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, female dominated industries, like retail and tourism, are going to take a long time to recover. And the success of recovery after we reopen the economy will depend on what industries the government decides to bail out.
“If this government starts bailing out industries that are male dominated, like construction, but they don’t bail out industries that are female dominated, like retail or customer service, then you’re going to see inequality crystallize.”
Susan Ainsworth, an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Melbourne, says the pandemic provides a perfect opportunity for workplaces to conduct a social experiment. One that would have never happened otherwise.
She says managers and employees are having to come to terms with a new normal while working remotely. Suddenly, there are things possible that some never thought would be.
“What I would really hope is that coming out of this, businesses rethink how people use their time,” Ainsworth says.
“That they don’t confuse presence in the office with productivity, and they become much more open not just in policy but in practice, to people working more flexibly and recognising that people have a life outside work.”
On the flip side, recovery from the pandemic may see businesses revert to what they know. One of the first things to go may be diversity, according to Ainsworth.
“Businesses under crisis and people in crisis will revert to what they know. So anything that seems like it is an experiment or innovating or trying new things, or an extra program that you brought on and you were trialing, that will go,” she says.
“People will revert back to predictable behavior because they feel unsafe, basically.”
So what we really need, is for businesses and organisations post-COVID to identify that there are alternative ways to work and to codify these into their workplace policies.
So how to we get to the other side of this pandemic without making gender equality worse?
First, we’re going to need to rebuild and repair, and importantly, deal with the trauma people will have experienced in this time. There’s going to be trauma from those who work on the frontline. But we will also see trauma and emotional damage from the parents and caregivers that have been trying to balance work and children and relationships within the home.
“Asking families to come together intensely for long periods of time within this home is actually really puts a lot of people at risk, and so identifying, acknowledging, maintaining supports for people who are in situations of domestic violence, or lack safety in the home,” Ruppanner says.
For business owners and managers, it more about maintaining connection and trust with employees, while rebuilding.
“It’s about trusting your employees, that they actually know what they’re doing, and they will do it.”
Ainsworth says businesses need to be thinking beyond the short term. It’s about not falling into that hyper reactivity of cutting, clawing back anything that’s not nailed down.
As the government starts to invest economically in the reopening of the economy, it’s important to think beyond the industries we often think of as the “economic engines” of the country, like manufacturing and construction. We need to think about that jobs that quite clearly, throughout the pandemic, have been essential for the economy. Nursing, childcare work, and teachers need to be at the top of that list.
And critically, according to Ruppanner, we need to understand that underpinning the entire economy is the unpaid domestic work done by women. We need to identify it, and value it for what it is.
We’ll be featuring stories on all eight episodes of this podcast here on Women’s Agenda, thanks to our partnership with the Faculty of Business and Economics at The University of Melbourne.
Click here to see the full: #WomenAreTheBusiness series