2020: a She-cession?

Laetitia@Work #21

Hi everyone,

There’s been much talk recently about the impact of the current crisis on gender equality. The Covid-19 disease itself seems to have been hitting men significantly harder than women—the question of whether sex hormones play a role is keeping many scientists busy. Chinese researchers found that more than 70% of those who had died were men, even though men and women were as likely to contract the coronavirus. However the impact of the pandemic on everyday lives and of the economic crisis on jobs and earnings is a different story. In fact the crisis could even hinder the progress of gender equality in the long run.

Women are hard at work on the front lines of the response to the pandemic, but many more have lost their jobs as a result of confinement and slow activity. In retail, restaurants and hotels, it may take years before women get back to their pre-pandemic levels of employment. At home too many women are the victims of domestic violence. A majority of them suffer from an unequal division of domestic labour and bear the brunt of child care duties. Many of those women lucky enough to be able to work from home cannot balance work and domestic life well enough to avoid jeopardising their careers and future earnings. With children at home, telework appears more like a mixed blessing for women.

brown wooden table and chairs

Understanding the gendered impact of the pandemic can help design better treatments (what if sex hormones really do play a part?). Understanding the gendered impact of the crisis can help us come up with better policies to overcome the crisis and design infrastructures that will help foster more equality and inclusion. The good news is that now that we are several months into this crisis, quite a few experts have been able to help us get a better sense of perspective. I’ll leave the medical aspect aside and focus essentially on the economic dimension. Here’s a recap on what we’ve learnt so far 👇

The 2020 crisis has been called a “she-cession”

The previous recession we experienced, the 2008-2010 recession, was dubbed a mancession (a portmanteau word which combines “man” and “recession”) because the massive job losses that occurred were predominantly in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing and construction (and finance at the beginning). (See this 2009 Atlantic article titled “It’s Not Just a Recession. It’s a Mancession!”). In fact, most of the previous recessions were mancessions as the characteristic pattern of a recession, technological change and social trends, had a stronger impact on men than women. During and after each of the previous recessions more and more jobs were created in female-dominated sectors (proximity services, restaurants, care, retail) and fewer and fewer jobs were created in the male-dominated manufacturing sector.

By contrast, this year’s economic crisis has already been called a shecession (strangely the portmanteau womancession doesn’t seem to have been used much) because more jobs are lost in female-dominated sectors. Restaurants, shops, schools, shopping malls, hotels, nail salons, and yoga centres employ more women than men. A lot of these businesses were closed due to the lockdowns decided by many various governments. Some are likely to reopen soon and some of the jobs concerned aren’t lost forever. But even after several countries decided to ease the lockdown and restart some activities, many businesses are still not doing well.

In the US, as many as one in four restaurants is at risk of not reopening after the pandemic. In retail, job losses had started before the pandemic, and were accelerated this year. It is quite likely that many of the jobs lost during the pandemic will not be recreated any time soon. And women really do bear the brunt of those losses.

“The bleak job numbers for women and the economic uncertainty women now face have put the American economy in a "shecession," according to C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a women-focused think tank (…) Of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April, the most recent month for which data is available, women accounted for 55% of jobs lost, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).” (With women's unemployment sky high, this recession is a 'shecession,' expert says, ABC News, 28 May 2020).

Many precarious jobs were affected by the crisis, which further weakened workers (among whom a majority of women) who were already living from paycheck to paycheck. It’s also made the sectors that don’t pay well more likely to pay even less in the future. The more precarious your life is, the more precarious it is likely to continue to be. “Even though women were more than 50% of the workforce, many of these jobs were not quality jobs or well-paying jobs with benefits (...) during the pandemic, we see that reality come into focus.”

It’s not just the job losses, it’s also about the future careers and earnings of female knowledge workers

Yes, women are more likely to lose their jobs, be furloughed, start working part time because of children at home and remain stuck in precariousness, but what about the women lucky enough to be in better-paid jobs that can be done remotely? Surely these women aren’t impacted by the crisis. Well, it turns out that they are too. Only in different ways. 

If I was asked to oversimplify the world of female work, here’s how I would put it: there are privileged career women who compete with men in knowledge jobs, factory jobs, and construction jobs and there are less privileged women who do domestic work and care work; and they depend on each other for their careers and earnings. As many women entered the workforce after WWII, many other female jobs were created to externalise the “reproductive work” that used to be performed at home. More restaurant jobs were created to externalise the preparation of meals. More care homes were created. More childcare jobs. Etc.

Domestic chores weren’t really shared more evenly in the household (only marginally) as more women got a paid job, these chores were merely outsourced to other women outside the household. Domestic chores entered the realm of paid work, which is not a bad thing, of course, because something that was done for free suddenly generated at least some payment. It’s also made it possible for women to make a living and become more economically independent.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either because child care, elderly care, and cleaning remained largely the work of women. In other words the sexual division of labour was never really challenged. There is this systemic interdependence of women on other women for their careers and earnings which perpetuates the sexual division of labour. If one category of women doesn’t do well, then it has a negative impact on the other category.

During the pandemic the sexual division of labour and the interdependence of female knowledge workers and domestic and care workers was made eerily obvious. The tasks that had been outsourced (child care, cleaning, cooking) all had to be re-internalised… and most of these tasks had to be performed by the woman (women) in the household. In most cases it is often “rational” to preserve the time and space of the main earner in the household (often not a woman): they can’t jeopardise their career to do more housework. But strangely enough, even in households where the main earner is a woman, she still bears the brunt of the re-internalised housework. On average, high-earning women in WFH situations spend more time on child care and domestic chores than men who are out of a job!

“Women are historically tasked with carrying the cognitive labor for household activities -- which now includes homeschooling for most parents -- and women already face a gender pay gap where they earn around 80 cents for each dollar their male coworkers make. When household and childcare duties increase, as they have during the pandemic, it's often the woman in opposite-sex couples who takes on the added burden.” (ABC News)

As a consequence, working from home is more of a mixed blessing for women than it is for their male partners (in opposite-sex couples). During the pandemic, female researchers, for example, submitted fewer research papers than their male counterparts (See “Women are getting less research done than men during this coronavirus pandemic”). The same is happening with all knowledge jobs. Working from home will cost women more economically if they have less time and space to do their work at home. They will be less productive. They won’t be promoted as much. They may be forced to work part time. They may lose out on new business opportunities. Their future earnings and opportunities are under threat. 

When Virginia Woolf wrote about the importance for female writers to have “a room of their own” (i.e. physical space and material independence) for their literary creation to be possible, she didn’t know that idea would apply to female accountants and chief marketing officers working from home during a pandemic. But it does apply.

Domestic workers all over the world are hit hard by this recession

Domestic workers all over the world are still overwhelmingly female… and many of them lack the protections of factory and office workers. They have no history of collective bargaining and unions. They were long excluded from the protections implemented in social security schemes. Most of today’s slaves are domestic workers. They are all the more vulnerable as many of them are immigrants with unclear status who have no legal protection. When these domestic workers come from less-developed countries, their families are dependent on them to survive in their own country. In the Philippines, for example, the remittances from migrant domestic workers account for a significant chunk of the country’s GDP (something close to 10%).

As many domestic workers found themselves out of a job during the pandemic, and unable to travel back to their families, their plight had repercussions on the livelihood of other people in faraway countries. In the US, the Center for Law And Policy estimated that child care providers will need $9.6 billion per month to economically survive the effects of a six-month period of reduced activity. (As far as the spread of poverty is concerned, globalisation still works 😟)

In short, domestic workers are heavily exposed to the crisis because a lot of them are part of the informal economy, because the lines between “productive” and “reproductive” work are still blurred, and because paid domestic workers sort of compete with unpaid workers. It’s probably even worse in poorer countries like India, where “around 70 percent of working women are employed in the informal economy with few protections”, according to this NYT piece titled “For Indian Women, the Coronavirus Economy Is a Devastating Setback”:

“Rohini Pande, an economics professor at Yale who researches women’s employment patterns in India, said female migrant workers could face steep challenges recovering work. Many women struggle to persuade their parents to let them defer marriage and leave their villages for jobs (...) Domestic duties cut into the time women can search for jobs. In India, women perform 9.6 times more unpaid care work than men, about three times the global average. The pandemic has increased that burden for many women, according to the International Labour Organization.”

All is not lost. There are (at least) two reasons for optimism.

I want to end on a more optimistic note, if only because optimism leads to action whereas the “all is lost” position leads to complete paralysis, and after writing this newsletter I feel a bit paralysed now 🥺 The effects of this crisis on women, and mothers in particular, are likely to last long and hinder progress in gender equality for years. But beyond the current crisis, there are forces and trends that may ultimately counter the negative impact on women. Here are two reasons for optimism:

First, many companies underwent radical transformations due to the pandemic that may benefit women in the long run. The imposed work-from-home situation lasted long enough for changes in management to be necessary. Flexibility by default is becoming more of a norm (not in all companies, of course, but in more and more of them). If flexible work arrangements are not strictly speaking a woman’s issue and are offered to every worker in every position, then workers cease to pay a price (in terms of pay or promotions) for that flexibility. Companies no longer discriminate against the candidates and employees who ask for it. 

As Iris Bohnet writes in What Works: Gender Equality by Design, “with increased demand for flexibility, we can (and you should) anticipate that competitive labor markets will adjust to employees’ preferences and stop discriminating against people seeking flexibility”. Moving to the flexibility default for most (if not all) positions is not just a way to cater to the female workforce. It also helps meet the demands of all workers and expand the talent pool from which an employer can recruit. All workers, men included, seek increased flexibility and want to work more autonomously. The current crisis has definitely proven there’s more demand for flexibility. 

Second, there are more and more fathers who feel more responsible for child care. The social norms that make possible the perpetuation of the sexual division of labour may in fact be changing. I wrote at length about that in an optimistic newsletter titled “Ode to dads during the pandemic”.

“What if this pandemic was for fathers at home what the second world war was for women in the workforce? A cultural turning point. Indeed the same way millions of women had to work in factories during WWII and were thus given the opportunity to prove they could be productive members of the (paid) workforce, millions of men today are stuck at home with children. Many of them are now unemployed. Many have a partner who has to work (yes, nurses are overwhelmingly female, and many of those who have children rely on a male partner at home to look after the children).”

🌳 I’m still in Normandy this month 😏 but I’m beginning to think about going places in the near future.

Nicolas and I made a few changes to our media Nouveau départ (in French). Most importantly it is now only 50% of the original price to subscribe (only €150/year or €15/month, and no longer €300/year or €30/month)! We’ve realised many students and other people who can’t expense the subscription were interested in our media. We decided to make it more accessible.

Also we’ve decided that the best content we could produce for our paying subscribers was our “à deux voix” podcast, i.e. conversations that Nicolas and I have on various subjects. So we’ll publish more of these. See our About page here. That being said we’ll still do great interviews with interesting people! The last one was with Jérémy Clédat, the CEO of Welcome to the Jungle, and it’s really worth a listen!

For Welcome to the Jungle, I’ve written several new pieces, in French and English. There are four new ones on the subject of remote work:

Also I’m spending a lot of time promoting my new book 100 idées innovantes pour recruter des talents et les faire grandir, written with Jérémy Clédat. We did a webinar together. If you missed it, you can find the summary and the podcast here. And there was an article about the book in French daily Les Échos 😎

Last but not least, I’m doing a webinar with The RSA TODAY at 1pm London time, with Carl Frey: Bridges to the Future => Alan Lockey is joined in conversation by future work experts, Carl Frey and Laetitia Vitaud, to discuss how we make sure the post-pandemic future is one where good work is enjoyed by all.” 🎙️


  • 🌍 The 'Great Fragmentation': What It Means for Investors, Nicolas Colin, European Straits #177, June 2020: “there’s a discrepancy between the widespread assumption that we live in a globalized world and the actual situation as revealed by data.”

  • 👮 How Much Do We Need the Police?, Leah Donnella, NPR, June 2020: “one of the myths we have about policing is that it is politically neutral, and that it is always here to sort of create order in a way that benefits everyone. But the reality is that America's social order has never been entirely equitable. We have a long history of exploitation of the Indigenous population, of African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow and today”

  • 🇸🇪 Man Behind Sweden’s Controversial Virus Strategy Admits Mistakes, Rafaela Lindeberg, Bloomberg, June 2020: “The laxer approach to containing the virus has drawn both praise and condemnation from across the globe. What is beyond debate, however, is the effect the strategy has had on the country’s death toll.”

That’s all for today. I’ll be back in your mailbox in two weeks! 💌

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