Pandemic and women’s work: Why are women paying a greater price for the crisis?

Thanks to Giulia Conforto for collaborating on this article

After a temporary recovery that lasted from July to November, employment began to decline once again due to the second wave. Despite a prohibition on layoffs beginning mid-March 2020, employment data fell in December. All age groups are affected, except for those over 50, who are experiencing employment growth.

The data are dramatic and clear-cut: the collapse concerns almost exclusively women. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat), out of 101,000 workers who lost their jobs in December (down 0.4% compared to November), 99,000 were women, and “only” 2,000 were men. This same phenomenon, albeit with slightly less extreme numbers, is also seen when looking at the whole year. Of the 444,000 fewer people employed in Italy over the course of 2020, 70 percent are women.

These stark data show that it is mainly women, especially self-employed and temporary workers, who are paying the price for the pandemic in the workplace.

The first question is why. There are several reasons. First, a larger percentage of women than men are employed in areas that offer temporary employment, or in positions where dismissal is relatively easy (e.g., domestic work and professions such as home health aides and nannies—a sector that has collapsed due to remote work).

Then there is the longstanding issue of unpaid care work, which still largely (74 percent, according to data from the International Labour Organization) rests on women’s shoulders. As a result, 21 percent of Italian women of working age say that they are not actively seeking employment or are not available.

Lastly, with schools closed and distance learning (DAD) implemented, the situation got even worse, forcing working mothers to sacrifice their jobs and in many cases even leave them.

Both in Italy and globally the pandemic is currently occurring in a context in which gender inequality in the world of work was a critical issue even before the health emergency.

The world gender pay gap, i.e., the difference between the average annual salaries received by women and those received by men, is around 20 percent. In Italy, the figure is lower on average, but this does not mean that things are going well. Beyond wages, there is a problem with female employment. Census, until the beginning of 2020, noted that women accounted for approximately 42 percent of the country’s total employment and the female activity rate stood at around 56 percent, compared to 75 percent for men.

So the health emergency is simply amplifying the inequalities that already characterized the social structure of pre-pandemic Italy. According to Bank of Italy estimates, if all the women currently unemployed were to work, Italian GDP would grow by 7 percent.


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