“COVID-19 provides us with an opportunity for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives” – UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
While we all are trying to acclimate to new ways of working, exercising, and socialising amid continued social distancing measures during COVID-19, we are also juggling the complex territory of navigating family dynamics within close quarters and trying to maintain healthy relationships with each other while simultaneously meeting the educational, work and care needs of each member of the household. A concerning byproduct of these measures is that women face additional responsibilities and pressure.
Care work – both formal and informal – is generally still viewed as the purview of women and has long been recognised as a driver of inequality. Prior to COVID-19, women in APAC were performing four times as much unpaid care work as men. Since the pandemic, women have disproportionately taken up the role of primary carer and are looking after children or elderly family members, without the usual support from schools or care centres in addition to doing household chores. They are continuing with paid work (either at home or outside) and simultaneously managing their usual, unpaid domestic workload.
In many households, shifting care work to women isn’t a deliberate regression to traditional gender roles; rather, it’s a practical one. Decisions around who will take on this informal workload often centres around which household earner has a higher salary and who has more flexibility in their job. Often, because of structural inequalities women face in the formal economy and socio-cultural decisions around family and care, it is generally women who will be saddled with extra responsibilities. Single parents, the majority of whom are women, the physical and mental toll is even higher.
Women who work in low paying, service oriented jobs like cleaners and cashiers particularly struggle. Their jobs cannot be performed remotely, yet financial necessity dictates that they must continue to go to work while still trying to juggle care responsibilities and understanding they are bringing unavoidable increased risk of COVID-19 exposure to the whole family.
With so many individuals stepping in to shoulder these extra responsibilities, the critical role that care giving and domestic work plays in a well-functioning society has become irrefutable. As such, Government and employer support measures in response to COVID-19 must necessarily include informal care givers. These measures can range from having publicly available resources and training available for care givers to understand how to effectively perform care responsibilities during COVID-19 to paid reductions in working hours or work-sharing arrangements for employees with care responsibilities. Provide child and elder care subsidies for workers unable to work remotely to make needed care arrangements.
At TWF, we have long been concerned with the disproportionate amount of domestic work that women engage in. We have researched the tremendous economic and social contributions of informal caregivers in Hong Kong and continue to advocate for a comprehensive series of reform among Government and employers to recognise and better support this type of informal work. We also integrate in depth discussions on gender dynamics within the home as part of our Male Allies Initiative.
To reframe our pandemic response with gender at the centre, we can all engage in positive actions to help women we know – starting with the home. Check in with the primary carer of your household and ask where help is most needed – whether that be preparing meals or checking in on a child’s assignment. Family and friends can offer virtual support through regular check ins or virtual babysitting. Men in particular can role model the ways they are splitting responsibilities in their household and encourage male friends to follow suit. Let’s alleviate the burden for the primary carers in our lives and help engender home environments during these challenging times that confer equal sharing of responsibility where possible.
Get in touch at Fiona.Nott@twfhk.org.