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The life of women in the times of Covid-19

The effects of the coronavirus risk to undermine further the already fragile balance achieved with the difficult conciliation of work and family and social life

Bernadette Golisano


By June 2020July 17th, 2020No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

It’s hard not to realise it immediately but our daily life already sustained a deep change: there is less time for oneself, more professional and domestic duties at home, thus less options to choose from. Covid-19 unbalanced our present and our future- both individual and collective- and now women risk having to face a context that will penalise them further, making them go back in time. It is therefore a risk that we should immediately try to avoid, reflecting together on the possible measures necessary to counteract the impact of this emergency. We cannot deny that from now on the gender gap, perpetuated from specific cultural and social factors that keep on enduring in Italy, will be assuming old and new orms and become more consolidated. Let’s look at some data.

The work/economy factor

As the recent survey of the Toniolo Institute (“Women on the frontline”) showed, the Italian female employment rate (49.5 per cent) is already the lowest in Europe, despite the fact that on average women are better educated than men (they constitute 60 per cent of graduates). However, the research highlights that the majority of women work in lower-paid job sectors, in other words jobs that might not necessarily require low qualifications but that certainly provide low salaries (for example think about the countless female teachers there are). Women also tend to work in sectors that nowadays are impacted by closures, termination of jobs, job insecurity or temporary unemployment due to the risk of infection (for example cleaning services, the tourism sector, caregiving or domestic work, such as domestic workers and caregivers). Women also work in sectors that are crucial nowadays, such as healthcare, as doctors and nurses, and carry the heavy burden and the risks that these roles currently demand.

From now on the gender gap, perpetuated by specific cultural and social factors that keep on enduring in Italy, will be assuming old and new forms and become more consolidated.

The time and cultural factors: women work too much

Unfortunately, aside from the new problems connected with the healthcare emergency that everyone shares, nowadays the female population also has to deal with the issues connected with old family models: female workers continue to be responsible for most of the domestic or caring work. It is estimated that three women out of four do not receive any help from their husband or partner. Here’s how the work, both in and out of the home, the surplus of domestic work and child-minding, or even just the very Italian habit of taking on the family management responsibility and the eventual division of tasks, transform the daily life of many women in an obstacle race and an unsustainable series of duties- as a worker, parent, caregiver, etc. The woman becomes the only reference figure, a sort of all-round administrator that, whether at home or remotely, manages the family universe anyway. Furthermore, another survey by the Employment Consultants Research Foundation that was circulated on 10 May indicated that exactly because women worked more than men during the quarantine period (squeezed between managing children at home, domestic work and at the same time their professional work done remotely) they might soon be pushed to leave their occupation.

Caregivers because of necessity

Then there is also the big unresolved chapter of caring for elderly parents, who are often not self-sufficient, or for disabled relatives (whether adults or minors). In this regard the scarce provision of home-based support services soon turned into gaping holes that were difficult to close. During the emergency one Italian family out of four had to lose their employed caregiver. The employment relationship had to be interrupted in 27 per cent of cases, or reduced (as the “Caregiver and Covid” survey showed). In many cases the announced gradual reopening of day centres for disabled children will improve the situation but the huge issue around the safety and the health of the family support workers who will return to work and deliver home-based services in the households of their clients remains unresolved. Unfortunately many female caregivers will lose their job in case of dismissal due to financial or safety reasons. Out of necessity many women will have to become full-time caregivers for their relatives affected by more or less serious disabilities thus losing financial independence and the chance to receive the support they need to also live a work and relational life.

What is the consequence of putting all these factors together? We already know that statistically during the first weeks of businesses reopening it was mostly men that were able to return to work. The survey therefore indicates the risk of “statistical discrimination”. In such an unfavourable situation for women several companies obviously tend to prefer employing and promoting their male colleagues in order to avoid the greater probability of issues or absences. Are you surprised?

Physical distancing might become the source of a greater social distancing (and isolation) for women.

What if the family budget gets tighter?

The worst impact might definitively stem from the economical and occupational crisis that we expect to see in the coming months as a result of the healthcare emergency. Up till now it was mostly the time of women that got restricted. However, soon for many the chance itself to reclaim their own time could be at stake, meaning that they will be less able of getting a “substitute” for their female caring and domestic work, the employment of domestic workers, babysitters and carers. Let’s face it: in most cases nothing has really changed in the current model of family management. Up till now we have just been delegating to other women (Italian or foreign, with less financial possibilities) the tasks that we are traditionally assigned. During the lockdown many women tried to manage without any external help for fear of the infection. However, now that there is a return to work in a situation of “different normality” several families are exposed to the concrete risk of unemployment or business closure, which will lead to more women having to give up the domestic help they used to benefit from. The physical distancing adopted to fight the new coronavirus might therefore be the source of a greater social distancing (and isolation) for women.