Lynda Keeru of Pamoja Communications summarizes Naila Kabeer’s recent lecture at LSE, organised in memory of Sylvia Chant. The lecture explores essential work, labour market disruptions and contestations within the household to draw attention to the gendered nature of economic pandemic effects.
In the lecture, ‘Gender and COVID-19: a feminist economics lens’, Naila Kabeer, kicked off the session by saying:
“While gender is the entry point for all our discussion, it is now more than ever embedded in an intersectional understanding of inequality; of the way in which gender intersects with inequality, class, ethnicity, race and so on. This intersection is imperative in times of COVID. While the virus itself may be blind to things like one’s identity and nationality, risks of infection and the ability to cope with the infection reveals inequality that were still in existence but not comprehended as fully as is the case now. The pandemic has worsened these inequalities to the extent that they may have long lasting implications if we do not do something about them; like social unrest and deteriorating rights.”
It was a remarkable start to a lecture that emphasized the everything in our social world is gendered and that this gendered reality is a pattern replicated across diverse societies and countries.
Naila cautioned us to look at the pandemic, not just as a physical illness, or a public-health crisis, but as an economic one. To this end, she argued, that feminists have a contribution to make towards various themes that had sprung from the pandemic.
An analysis of the various crisis that have occurred in the past reveals that different groups are vulnerable during different crisis. This particular crisis has revealed a new set of fault lines; some recognized officially and others unacknowledged. The first and most recognized is between essential workers whose work must continue during the pandemic and non-essential workers whose activities have been brought to a halt or relocated to their homes. Essential workers are those whose services are essential for us to continue in our daily lives and to continue with our health and lives. They include well paid professionals such as doctors, scientists, public health officials but the vast majority are made up of low wage service providers; often deemed unskilled but now recognized as essential for the sale and delivery of a host of goods and services like cleaning, home health, garbage disposal, postal services etc.
Among essential workers too, there is a fault line; one that largely goes unremarked. This is the paid and unpaid essential work. Although it is carried out as routinely as paid essential work and is as critical to daily life as paid essential work, the work of those who undertake care work and household work within the home has remained largely invisible during this pandemic even though the burden of this work has increased. Unsurprisingly, for essential workers too, there is a fault line. There are fault lines between those that can continue to work from home because they have access to necessary technology and those who can’t. Among those who can’t the more fortunate live in countries where they get some form of support from their governments and the less fortunate live in countries where they have to fend for themselves.
Naila explained that one of the biggest contributions that feminist economists have made to the analysis of inequalities and labour markets is in relation not to the way that individuals fare in the labour markets, but how individuals as members of groups fare. Through the segmentation of the labour market, we get to understand inequality. This segmentation has helped to explain the disproportionate impacts that have been experienced by women as a result of two kinds of disruption. On one hand job losses in sectors that have been hardest hit by the shutdowns and on the other hand, over representation in frontline jobs that have to continue for people’s lives to function as normally as possible. Globally around 40% of all women workers compared to 36% of men, work in services that were hardest hit economically by the pandemic. Some of these include tourism, the hotel industry, airline industry, food services and wholesale and retail trade.
Labour market segmentation also explains the intersectional impact of the pandemic – gender intersecting with race, ethnicity, and class to show up in patterns of unemployment. There is a close correlation between marginalized identities and informal work. Job losses have been largely concentrated in the informal economy where working women are largely concentrated. Both men and women reported a decline in informal sources of support. Domestic workers who are mostly women, have also reported certain violations of their rights like the inability to leave the employer’s homes and having their leave days being cancelled without notice.
Contestation within the home
Feminists have analyzed households and families as sites of cooperation intermeshed with conflict. Sites of care and intimacy as well as power inequality and violence, explained Naila. COVID-19 disruptions have been a much-needed reminder of the interconnections between domestic institutions and labour markets. Disruption of the economy has had profound reverberations within the home and struggles to manage the consequences within the home have had implications for resilience and recovery.
In general, women continue to do the bulk of routine household work around the world but there are variations in the extent to which men have increased their contributions to non-routine domestic work. Lockdown and stay-at-home orders seem to have increased the unpaid work burden and workloads had increased and intensified for women. This has had negative impacts on their physical and mental well-being.
The shadow pandemic is the intensified conflict, increased incidence and severity of domestic violence across the world following the onset of COVID-19. Several risk factors have been noted in relation to domestic violence: increased psychological and financial stress in the face of reduced incomes, seemingly endless confinement (especially for men who are accustomed to going out), rising rates of alcohol consumption, increased time spent with abusers and difficulties in accessing domestic violence prevention services. Naila explained how class is likely to intersect with this violence because confinement is far more stressful in crammed homes and overcrowded slums.
Feminist interventions in the policy space
COVID-19 has propelled issues of social protection on to the international agenda. When the pandemic recedes, the world could choose to go back to the old normal and fall back on minimal safety nets and stop gap measures which leave large gaps in coverage. Or they may choose to accept that we now live in a world in which individual risks and generalized crisis are endemic and come in many different forms: environmental, economic. As a result, we could build a more systemic approach to social protection to sustain us through this crisis, to do what we can to prevent future ones. It’s possible that feminist policy development may assist us in addressing some of the deep-seated vulnerabilities that make the everyday lives of so many people precarious, undervalued or unrecognized and lead to intensified suffering in times of crisis.
In order to build back fairer, Naila challenged participants to consider a normative shift, a new kind of social contract which should combine ideas on distributive justice and contributive justice as recommended by Michael Sande in his new book, the Tyranny of Merit. He argues that not everyone will make it to the top of society; and not everyone is going to become rich. There’ll still continue to be forms of work that are essential to the health of our society. The idea of contributive justice is to shift from valuing people on the basis of the money they make, to valuing them on the basis of their contribution to the common good.
A podcast of this event is available to download from Gender and COVID-19: a feminist economics lens.
A video of this event is available to watch at Gender and COVID-19: a feminist economics lens.
A PDF copy of the PowerPoint slides is available to download at Gender and COVID-19: a feminist economics lens (pdf).
A link to the Feminist Economic Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic Special Issue of Feminist Economics (in press) is available with open access until July 2021.