Women make a great contributions to society through their work, both inside and outside the house. Despite this, their socioeconomic role is rarely recognised by the rest of the community and even more rarely taken into account by politics. The current pandemic crisis has put under the light the inequalities and the injustice which they suffered. And it has given us the opportunity to re-think our normality when it comes to gender roles.
By Andrey Rincon Rojas / AJIN
Until a few months ago, normality seemed to focus on a life based on speeding up production and consumption, leaving aside those tasks of care that we thought of as something determined for no reason. Events which alter this situation, such as the pandemic crisis, have made visible all the social, hierarchical and gender role relations naturalized within our homes as much as in our social imaginaries. This context allows us to question and discuss these relations and to incorporate a gender perspective in the new strategies of economic reactivation which seem to stress the logic of exploitation and consumerism, but can be the opportunity to propose policies able to take into account the strife for equality and social justice.
Before the pandemic: unequal normality
Before the restrictions on mobility, the confinement and all the aggravating factors generated by the pandemic, the social and gender gaps existing in Latin America were already clear. Women’s position in the labor market was more precarious than men’s, since many female employees worked in informal sectors where basic welfare and social security conditions were absent. Those who were in the formal sector earned lower salaries compared to their male counterparts.
In the domestic environment, care tasks are mostly assumed by women: they become unremunerated work overload for them. According to a study conducted by UN Women in 2019, even though women are becoming more involved in different productive sectors and are making more room for themselves in previously hermetic space, they continue to assume a disproportionate burden in caregiving tasks compared to men.
ECLAC has defined caregiving tasks as those that “allow people to feed, educate themselves, be healthy and live in a favorable habitat.” It encompasses, therefore, three dimensions of care: the material, which implies work; the economic, which implies a cost; the psychological, which implies an affective bond. It remains a challenge to conceptualize and make visible unpaid domestic work for women, as there are still obstacles to its full recognition as fundamental work in human life and to its implications for the social development of any community.
Categories such as sex or gender are political categories which have structured us as a heterosexual society and in whose relationships we construct ourselves as men and women. This has led to the naturalization of certain obligations for each gender: for women, this has meant greater unpaid work. Their work as caregivers, as well as their obligations as “givers of life”, allows us to think that women as physical persons belong to men, as feminist theorist Menique Wittig points out.
The discourses on sexual differences and gender roles used to describe the relations between men and women only hide and minimize the existing relation of domination, thus obscuring the political dimensions of the gender question. Those narratives explain that, before any thinking, any structuring or social order, sexes are genetically, biologically, and hormonally different: these differences have consequences in social relations, such as the “natural” division of labor in the family.
All this has resulted in the persistence in our homes and at the social level of the idea that women should assume all care work, even if they also perform other tasks to support the household. It is also important to bear in mind that we are not only talking about a sexual division of labor. In fact, in societies as unequal as ours, such divisions transcend class and race to result in different labor inequality in the public and private spheres.
COVID-19 as an aggravating factor in gender and social inequality
Based on socioeconomic situations, there will be various effects of the pandemic on women. In terms of employability, the jobs best suited to remote work are those that require special skills in using technological tools. These skills derive from a certain access to education and information. Thus, the situation is more detrimental for those women with few skills and less education who belong to the most vulnerable economic groups.
The workforce in the informal sector is made up mostly of female workers. They are the most affected by the crisis and, at the same time, the most unprotected by the State. For example, the precariousness of feminized jobs such as employees of domestic service, catalogue sales or beauty salons is clear. Normally, these jobs lack formalization through a contract and social security, while the salaries received are precarious. Currently, the confinement measures have interrupted these jobs, which results in the lack of protection for women and their dependent families.
The pandemic has accentuated gaps and inequalities in the distribution of domestic work, making more evident the overload of tasks for women
The help of grandfathers and grandmothers (the most vulnerable population in the pandemic) or other relatives in childcare will be more necessary in the most vulnerable sectors whose female employees have fewer options to delegate the care of their children while they work. Besides, the overload of care in families with young children will require greater dedication – for example, in educational activities, part of the burden that teachers and schools had is assumed by mothers for whom it becomes an yet another additional burden. All this leads to a longer working day for women, a situation ignored by public policies and government strategies that think about working hours from a male perspective.
These factors show that not only are women being more affected in terms of job opportunities compared to men, but also that those women belonging to impoverished and marginalized social groups, with fewer skills, less training and working in the informal market are the most exposed to the effects of the crisis and the complete abandonment of the State.
Opportunities and challenges in the post-pandemic
Now that our governments are programming an economic reactivation, political and economic decisions have to consider the role of women in the economy as well as to boost their full participation.
A 2015 global study on implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on the contributions of girls and women to conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding found that conflict-affected communities that experienced the fastest economic recovery and reduced poverty are those that witness the greatest participation of women in political decisions and implemented projects.
Scenarios such as economic recovery represent an opportunity to explore lessons learned from including women in decision-making, such as those observed in this study. These experiences are based on a critical analysis of exploitation in the name of customs and traditions, which is a global problem for gender equality in all spheres of society. It must be taken into account that key economic decisions and activities can easily end up reproducing existing power structures that, far from bringing us closer to social justice, increase gender inequality and domination.
If we want to make a change at the social and cultural level, it is necessary to understand that care tasks can be distributed among household members regardless of their gender. This brings us face to face with the recognition of the burdens and unpaid work carried out by women, and that these burdens are necessary for the functioning of any society. It is equally essential to question those discourses that have constructed us as sexed subjects, which thing implies questioning men’s privileges in family and work environments.
Finally, the intervention of the State as a decision-maker means to consider all the overlaps arising from the division of labor which is not only a sexual fact but also a social and racial one. In this sense, this social critical analysis should not only be limited to middle-class nuclear families: it should encompass the cases of indigenous, black and/or migrant women, of women living in rural areas, of female sex workers – of all those women who experience different family models and different burdens and modes of oppression than the standardised ones. Otherwise, the “new normality” awaiting us after the pandemic crisis is the continuation of exploitation patterns in which women contribute most of the work in both the public and private spheres of society, moving us further away from a longed-for social justice.