New gender gaps are developing as a result of school closures

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It is an entire year since lives have been disrupted worldwide due to COVID-19. School closures continue to impact more than 990 million students. UNESCO estimated that by the end of January, on average, schools had been closed or partially closed for 5.5 months (22 weeks). As children stay home to learn remotely, one thing is becoming clear: the brunt not only of domestic responsibilities but also of the additional home-schooling responsibilities has fallen on women rather than men. Gender equality is under threat.

Credit: © Aisha Faquir/World Bank

Today, marks International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate great progress in advancing women’s rights over the last century. However, new global data from UN Women suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic could roll back 25 years of gender equality. With schools and day-care centres closed, women are spending increasing amounts of time in unpaid work such as taking care of their children, helping them with their schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks. All while trying to hold down a job.

We are now starting to talk about a care crisis affecting women and a real risk of roles reverting back to 1950s gender stereotypes. Before the pandemic, women were doing three hours of unpaid work compared to one hour by men. The pandemic has dramatically increased the burden and cemented these gender divisions along the way. Women are now delivering at least six hours compared to one hour of unpaid work undertaken by men.

Education shutdowns has added home-schooling to the domestic tasks. In the United Kingdom, the Office of National Statistics found that 67% of women compared to 52% of men were taking charge of their children’s education during the second lockdown. In Argentina, mothers supported their children with their homework in 68% of households; in only 16% of households was there support by both parents. In the United States, 80% of mothers claim housework is not divided equitably and they spend more time home-schooling their children than their husbands do. A mere 3% of women say their spouse are doing more than them.

This incessant juggling between home-schooling children while trying to hold down a job is widening the gender gap. In the United States, mothers of young children have been forced to reduce their work hours as much as four to five times more than fathers so they can meet the growing demands of household and care responsibilities. The heavier burden of household duties and home-schooling has consequences that limit their work and economic opportunities; women are more likely to be demoted and furloughed.

Home-schooling children while working is also taking a toll on women’s mental health with 53% of them reporting struggling compared to 45% of men in the United Kingdom. In the United States, women are 16 percentage points more likely to worry and feel stressed than men, suggesting that mothers are shouldering a large part of the burden.

It’s not just women. School closures in poorer countries have also seen girls tasked with more household work, including taking care of younger siblings and other family members. Recent data from UNICEF, Plan International, and UN Women show that adolescent girls are spending significantly more hours on chores compared to boys of the same age since the arrival of COVID-19.

In some countries, this imbalance in the share of responsibilities was evident before the pandemic struck. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua, the daily time spent by girls on household duties was between 3 and 4 hours, compared to 2.8 hours for boys. In Ecuador, girls worked 3.8 hours more per week in domestic chores than boys. These added responsibilities pull them further away from school and cut into their learning time, making the learning loss that much greater.

Given stagnating economies in the face of the crisis, opening doors to women is critical. According to McKinsey, women would add as much as $28 trillion to the global annual GDP by 2025 if they participated equally with men in the economy. The existing gender gap is estimated to reduce the world GDP by 15%.

While the health crisis has magnified stubborn imbalanced gender roles in households, it has also made the necessary changes more obvious. Women need flexibility at work and the option to take time off to care for family without risking losing their jobs. They require more training to adapt to changing work environments and to advance in their careers. Financial support though social protection programmes is critical for low income families to minimise the impact of the pandemic. Access to quality childcare is key. New gender gaps are developing as a result of school closures. We must not let them erase years of gains.

For more evidence on gender equality in education read #HerEducationOurFuture: Keeping girls in the picture during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

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