The gendered face of the pandemic
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 3, 11 May 2020, page no. 14
A global discussion has begun regarding the gendered nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic, social and health impacts.
At a local level, the QTU has been inundated with calls from members who are: parents, pregnant, vulnerable then not vulnerable (given the changing definitions of what constitutes “vulnerable”), carers, unwell, casually and temporarily employed, on paid leave, on unpaid leave, experiencing domestic or family violence, or generally anxious.
Here are some key observations of the gendered impact of the pandemic - locally and internationally - through a feminist lens.
- The feminised, low paid, and often invisible professions (such as child-care, aged care, retail and cleaning) have all been bolstered to “front-line” and “essential”.
- The feminised and “caring” professional roles (including teachers and nurses) have also been “elevated” to “front-line” and “essential”.
- Women are on the front line of this public health crisis and carry a disproportionate risk of being exposed to the virus as a result (especially when the restrictions in the wider community are not applied to schools).
- It is often women with family responsibilities who take on the burden of the learning from home, while already shouldering most of the child-rearing and most of the unpaid housework in the home. Many teachers who are unable to be at home are having to make alternative arrangements for their own children.
- The JobKeeper payment is not available to our TRS teachers, many of whom are women and do not have security of employment or are on extended unpaid leave and hoping to access ongoing TRS work to balance young families or care arrangements. Currently there is little prospect of consistent, ongoing TRS.
- The cost factor of childcare in Australia has finally been highlighted (we have some of the highest fees in the developed world), and while the relief of fee-free child care has been welcomed by many struggling families, the loss of income to many centres has seen a reduction in the availability of childcare hours and job security for those working in childcare.
- If your child wasn’t enrolled in a childcare centre pre-social isolating measures, you have next to no chance of getting them enrolled now.
- QTU women have communicated feelings of extreme guilt because, as essential workers prevented from negotiating flexible work by the guidelines, they are required to send their own children to schools and childcare and fear that they are potentially putting their own children at risk.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are recognised in higher risk groups as vulnerable workers (CMO) and have care and kin responsibilities.Restrictions on travel have impacted on Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people needing to access or return to remote and regional homes.
- Middle-aged women are the “sandwich generation”, looking after both children and elderly parents, and with social isolation provisions these become more challenging.
- Many older women are unable to physically attend work because of the definitions of “vulnerable”. If unable to negotiate the flexible work provisions, they are exhausting accrued leave (which they typically have less of than their male peers).
- There is already a double-digit gender pay gap in education, and most women retiring do so with significantly less than their male colleagues (as a result of needing to work part-time and broken service). The economic impact of the pandemic will again hit retiring women harder, as they have less to start with.
- Social isolation and quarantine put those vulnerable or at risk of family and domestic violence (DFV) in further danger. The department has produced a guide for principals wanting to check in on those who they know are at risk, but the reality is most of us aren’t aware of those living in fear or danger, as so much of DFV is behind doors. Tragically, in China the rates of DFV related murders went up during quarantine.
- Pre-pandemic, Australian families relied heavily on grandparents for childcare. Aside from the loss of this connection and support, the burden has fallen heavily back on to women, who are often seen as having more flexibility as they are more likely to access part-time.
- Chief medical officers have noted the lack of evidence when it comes to the vulnerability and risk to pregnant women. Pregnant QTU women anxious about the impact on their unborn children are sent mixed messages. Anecdotally we are aware that many pregnant teachers are not willing to risk their child’s health.
- Many women who are peri-menopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal have increased anxiety levels over the increased risk to their own health, concern for their family and loved ones, the impact of job losses and changes to the economy, the challenge and expectation of working with new technology, and trying to remain socially connected.
- Fundamentally, many women feel the strain of social isolation. It takes us back to a not too distant past where we were restricted to our homes, tied to domestic work and unable to access social freedoms and work outside our homes.
Then there is the external pressure to be “creative” during all this spare time. Among the suggestions have been baking bread, creative writing or painting, competitive home schooling tips and TikTok dance challenges, as well as a tsunami of advice and ways to utilise all the “free time” one is apparently experiencing in social isolation. Lauded examples from past pandemics (Shakespeare’s Lear and Sir Isaac Newton as examples) do little to quell the judgement and pressure on those with added complexities to their multiple and extended care responsibilities. These examples fail to recognise the privilege of housekeepers, wives or people in servitude available historically to undertake the additional burden of running households. I am yet to see or hear of single mothers (or parents) celebrating their freed-up schedules.
Amid the angst, however, there are positive factors. The shift to undertaking different ways of working will add credence to how teachers can access genuine flexible work in the future. The younger generation is seeing different ways of working, and that many traditional “powerful” jobs are not really that essential after all. As Marilyn Waring has long argued, we do not measure what we don’t value – and this global pandemic has highlighted the inordinate amount of unpaid work women do and that our economies and social structures are entirely dependent on it.
Globally, women leaders such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern have been commended for their responses to the pandemic. Our young people are seeing women leaders commended and rising to the forefront of response (and with data clearly demonstrating that their strategies are working).
It also should not be ignored that there is further, and alarming, gendered aspect to this pandemic, and that is that the mortality rate of infected patients is higher in male patients than female. This pattern became evident when Italy’s infection rates were peaking, and was initially thought to be related to the higher percentage of smokers in this demographic. It has since been speculated that underlying health conditions, smoking, hygiene practices and possibly the levels of oestrogen may have an impact. While it is still a most disturbing mystery, it is another factor in the way this pandemic is impacting on the genders in different ways.