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COVID-19 is changing the world of work – especially for women

By Kirstie McAllum


COVID-19 has changed what kind of work we think is important. In addition to our health heroes in hospital settings – nurses, doctors, and personal care assistants – workers whose jobs were almost invisible or ignored have overnight become highly visible: supermarket cashiers, service station attendants, and cleaners. These “essential workers,” who enable the rest of us to be safe and to stay at home, do work that increases the likelihood that they will be infected with COVID. These at-risk essential workers are more likely to be women.

The pandemic has also led more women than men to lose their jobs. A UK-based report explains that women in low paid and insecure employment have been hardest hit by the lockdown. At the heart of this global “she-cession,” women in female-intensive service sector jobs that require face-to-face contact and care are out of work or have had their hours cut in childcare, education, retail, personal services, food services, and accommodation/travel. The situation is far worse for women in developing countries where most work in the informal economy.

Other women have had to drop out of the workforce to take on care duties that keep the household running. The home health aide in New York City who had to choose between riding the subway to care for a client with severe epilepsy and leaving her 7-year old daughter alone at home is a poignant example. Other care needs falling mainly on women include care of out-of-school children and increased unpaid care for older and other vulnerable persons, as formal health systems are overwhelmed and under-funded.

As the United Nations’ policy brief, The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, points out, the pandemic is deepening pre-existing gender inequalities at work.

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