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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds up a card showing an alert system for COVID-19 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds up a card showing a new alert system for COVID-19, in Wellington, New Zealand, March 21, 2020 (AP photo by Nick Perry).

To ‘Build Back Better,’ Listen to Women

Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021

COVID-19 has walloped the world’s women. As the virus spread, women—who are overrepresented in hard-hit industries like food service, hospitality, education and, crucially, health care—found themselves vulnerable, unemployed and without a social safety net, and often neglected by government crisis responses. Closures of businesses and schools, necessitated by social distancing, have pushed millions of women from the global workforce: Worldwide, women lost 64 million jobs—$800 billion in earnings—in 2020.

At the same time, women’s retreat to the home widened gendered inequities in household labor, as women shouldered ever-greater child care responsibilities and more domestic chores. More time at home also increased women’s exposure to domestic violence, and gendered violence in general spiked in every region of the world. They suffered more from food and housing insecurities, and perhaps not surprisingly, have reported worse mental health outcomes compared to men globally. 

Nearly two years since the first cases of the virus, these gendered trends are still largely unaddressed. National GDPs, for example, will not bounce back without addressing the plunge in women’s employment. But stimulus plans from Australia to the United Kingdom have mainly focused on creating jobs in construction and technology, two male-dominated fields. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of economic recovery plans have addressed unpaid care work.

The problem is that women have generally been excluded from decision-making tables during the pandemic. Women heads of government—like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Finland’s Sanna Marin—have won well-deserved accolades for their ability to combine swift and decisive action with empathy and compassion, and for cultivating trust and resilience through clear, science-centered communication. But they were among only 11 women serving as the sole or top chief executive in 2020, and women currently comprise just 24 percent of the members of national coronavirus task forces. This is not enough to push along the needed transformation in how governments value women’s labor. 

Women are making surgical masks in Kuwaiti factories, going door-to-door with coronavirus tests in Indian villages, handing out food packages in Brazilian favelas and providing health and vaccine information to marginalized communities across Mexico and the United States. Their presence on the frontlines has been indispensable, and governments have relied on this volunteer or unpaid labor to address COVID-19’s social impacts—even as they neglect to address the most basic gender-related problems, like the fact that personal protective equipment does not fit women’s bodies.

A recovery without gender equality is not a recovery at all.

Getting governments to take the pandemic’s gendered dimensions seriously has been a top priority for feminists and women activists since the start. In April 2020, feminists in Hawaii inspired women’s organizations around the world when they presented their own feminist recovery plan, which tackled the gendered division of labor by demanding—among other things—higher wages for care work. Since then, feminist activists from North America to Africa have been banging on governments’ doors—but not all leaders have answered. 

Still, there have been some successes. The countries that have addressed the pandemic’s gendered dimensions, largely by reimagining care work and boosting cash assistance, have done so by including women activists, experts and politicians in policy deliberations and prioritizing gender-equality measures in national budgeting. And while the pandemic is far from over, these countries will bounce back faster and smarter—because a recovery without gender equality is not a recovery at all.

Emergency Politics as Male Politics

Women’s exclusion from COVID-19 response and recovery has its roots in prepandemic political processes. Worldwide, men continue to dominate in politics. Despite some notable gains—countries like Rwanda, Mexico, Sweden and most recently Iceland all have gender parity in their legislatures, for instance—men still hold 74 percent of seats in the world’s parliaments.

Men are especially overrepresented in the executive branch. About two-thirds of countries have never elected a woman president or prime minister. When COVID-19 began its global spread in 2020, women held just 22 percent of all ministerial positions in national governments, with regional averages ranging from 14 percent in the Middle East and North Africa to just over 28 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Few women held the sole or top executive office, and only three led countries in the Global South—Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, Mia Mottley in Barbados and Jeanine Anez in Bolivia.

Scholars of gender and politics point out that men’s political dominance, particularly in the executive branch, creates an enduring link between political leadership and masculinity. In other words, the traits associated with being an effective political leader are traits most often associated with men: being assertive, bold and tough. In the United States, even young children, when asked to describe or draw a political leader, usually depict a man. Voters continue to describe women politicians in stereotypically feminine terms, using words like sensitive and gentle—which don’t match popular conceptions of effective leadership. 

When the coronavirus pandemic began, it was not yet obvious that fighting COVID-19 would mean a long slog through several waves and variants. Instead, the pandemic seemed to be a case of what political scientists Sarah Dingler and Corinna Kroeber have called an “act fast/give slack” crisis. In emergency situations that require swift action, governments often enable chief executives to “act fast” by allowing them to operate without the normal checks and balances—giving them “slack.” Some governments allowed policies to be expedited through parliament, eliminating more protracted deliberation, as with South Korea’s rapid amendment of quarantine laws. Others approved emergency powers that allowed chief executives to pass certain policies without consulting parliament at all, as happened in Canada

The emphasis on action over deliberation means that fewer voices shape each policy, and since so few chief executives are women, men become the central and often sole responders. “Act fast/give slack” also deepens the general association between executive leadership and masculine traits, like toughness and resoluteness. Indeed, presidents and prime ministers commonly used war metaphors when presenting their COVID-19 strategies, with male leaders using aggressive language more frequently than women leaders.

Visitors to the Department of Labor are turned away due to coronavirus concerns, in New York, March 18, 2020 (AP photo by John Minchillo).

Lockdowns and social distancing further exacerbated the concentration of power in chief executives’ hands. Many parliaments shut down temporarily or shifted to hybrid or virtual formats in which not all legislators could participate. In a survey of U.S. state lawmakers that I conducted with Susan Franceschet between July and September 2020, many lamented that the governors of their states had issued pandemic orders without consulting state legislatures. Instead of policymaking, many ended up devoting large amounts of time to constituency service and reported greater difficulties in completing other legislative work. Although women hold only a few governorships, they fill about 30 percent of state legislative seats, so foregoing or curtailing legislative deliberation further silences their voices. 

The emphasis on science—and the connection between men and scientific expertise—also excluded women’s voices. Those countries taking COVID-19 seriously focused on medicine, technology and data, and rightly so. But since women continue to face barriers to advancement in scientific fields and are less often perceived as experts when they do, the focus on science elevated men’s leadership. Of all press briefings held by the U.K. government between March and May 2020, women ministers led just two, and fully 43 percent featured an all-male lineup, with no women politicians or experts present at all. In coronavirus coverage from 80 newspapers across six countries, journalists quoted male experts three to five times more frequently in countries as diverse as the U.K., the U.S., South Africa, Nigeria and India.

And it’s not just the spokespersons who are mostly men. Women are still vastly underrepresented in the emergency task forces assembled to organize pandemic responses, decision-making bodies that are usually set up by chief executives and their mostly male advisers. No region has attained gender parity in COVID-19 task force composition. At the high end, 31 percent of European task force members are women; in Asia, that number is just 13 percent. These patterns are visible even when looking at different kinds of task forces: Globally, women comprise 30 percent of the members of task forces focused on public health and 23 percent of those focused on the economy.

It is not surprising, then, that government responses have not prioritized the pandemic’s gendered effects. An analysis of 338 health policies issued by 76 governments in every region of the world found that only 9 percent addressed the role of gender in shaping health outcomes. And women are well aware of this neglect. In the U.K., for instance, 71 percent of women polled stated that their government’s COVID-19 response did not address their specific needs.

The Need for Structural Change

The few women chief executives governing during COVID-19 are doing what they can to push back against these trends. For instance, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir reported being told that solving the global health crisis and the recession must come before gender equality. “My answer,” she said, “is that it’s always the right time to talk about gender equality, not least in times of crisis.”

In Iceland’s COVID-19 task force, women actually constitute the majority, and its COVID-19 portal includes an entire page dedicated to gender equality. The task force’s approach has included keeping schools open, adding extra school hours for the children of frontline workers, introducing cash assistance for families with disabled and chronically ill children, and implementing salary top-ups for part-time workers. The country’s reputation for gender egalitarianism notwithstanding, Icelandic women do more domestic chores and comprise larger shares of frontline workers and part-time workers, and so these policies address women’s needs and help close care and wage gaps.

Feminist activists see COVID-19 as a moment to transform the underlying systems that devalue care work in the first place.

Yet closing gaps might not be enough. Feminist activists see COVID-19 as a moment to transform the underlying systems that devalue care work in the first place. Hawaii’s feminist recovery plan started with the premise that going “back to normal” would not work for women and girls. “Rather than rush to rebuild the status quo of inequality,” the plan’s authors wrote, “we should encourage a deep structural transition to an economy that better values the work we know is essential to sustaining us.”

In other words, “building back better” means treating care work as work. So long as women disproportionately share responsibility for hearth and home, and so long as they are disproportionately concentrated in lower-paid jobs in health care and other service industries, gender equality remains a distant dream. Time-use data from before the pandemic shows that, even as women’s roles changed in recent decades, men’s roles have not. To state it in plain terms, women have entered the workforce, but men haven’t started doing more dishes. As political scientist Dawn Teele so elegantly writes, “So long as working women bear the brunt of the emotional, physical, and cognitive labor in the home, women will never have the intellectual space or the free time to participate fully in politics.”

Changing individual behavior takes time, and progress does not unfold in a straight line. In the interim, feminist advocacy has focused on what governments can do: treat care work as infrastructure, as equally deserving of funding as construction and technology. 

Connecting Women Leaders and Women Activists

Although Hawaii’s plan has not yet been adopted by its state government, women have scored key victories in other places. In Canada, for example, the government’s 2021 budget contains $21.5 billion for early learning and child care, and in Argentina, a new pension scheme launched in August boosts social security benefits for women with paid and unpaid childrearing responsibilities.

Canada and Argentina have some advantages. Both countries have male heads of government who are committed to gender equality, and who have appointed women decision-makers and given them authority over COVID-19 recovery measures, especially national budgets. And, crucially, these women decision-makers are connected to feminists and women’s organizations in civil society. 

Even if Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sometimes prioritizes talk over action when it comes to gender equality, his self-proclaimed “feminist” label creates openings for policymakers. In a September 2020 speech, for instance, he borrowed language from a feminist economic recovery plan drafted by academics and activists from Canadian civil society groups who were ­inspired by Hawaii’s example. Previously, Trudeau had appointed Chrystia Freeland as the country’s first deputy prime minister and minister of finance. Freeland was no stranger to ­prioritizing gender equality, having implemented Canada’s feminist international assistance policy during a stint as foreign affairs minister—and in 2021, she wrote the budget that included the groundbreaking child care support program.

Women take part in a demonstration on International Women's Day in Madrid, Spain, March 8, 2021 (AP photo by Manu Fernandez).

Freeland also chairs a women-only task force on economic recovery along with co-chair Mona Fortier, the minister of middle-class prosperity. The group includes experts like economist Armine Yalnizyan—who popularized calling the pandemic-induced recession a “she-cession”—as well as lawyers, businesswomen, activists, trade union leaders and academics. And importantly, it also has ties to Indigenous peoples, queer communities and other marginalized groups, since addressing gender inequality means addressing its intersection with other forms of systemic discrimination. 

In Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez campaigned openly on feminist issues, from legalizing abortion to standardizing and raising wages for child care providers. Once elected, Fernandez named prominent gender equality advocates to key positions, including appointing Mercedes d’Alessandro to head a special gender equality division in the Ministry of Economy; Elizabeth Gomez Alcorta as minister of women, gender and diversity; and Vilma Ibarra as his chief policy adviser. All three are members of Mujeres Gobernando, or “Women Governing,” a network that connects women politicians, journalists and activists across the country. And all three played critical roles in setting Argentina’s 2021 budget, which allocated 15.2 percent of its expenditures—equivalent to 3.4 percent of the country’s GDP—to addressing the pandemic’s impact on gender equality. 

In contrast, in countries without women or their allies in key decision-making roles, advocates for gender equality have struggled to influence those with power to take women’s needs seriously. In Northern Ireland, activists published their own feminist recovery plan in July 2020—but it has largely fallen on deaf ears. In an event relaunching the plan in July 2021, Paula Bradley, a member of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly, said getting ministers to address women’s needs was an “uphill struggle,” because many “simply did not get it.” Rachel Powell, a lobbyist from the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, which helped steer the plan, told me, “We have seen women completely disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, economically, socially and in terms of health­—yet our political leaders refuse to even acknowledge this.”

Women in Northern Ireland did score one victory, however. In April 2020, Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Communities Minister Dierdre Hargey announced that furloughed women workers would still be entitled to statutory maternity pay based on their original salaries. While not as far-reaching as the policies in Canada and Argentina, even small victories like this one make immediate, material differences in women’s lives. And feminists know that tepid reforms often lay the groundwork for larger reforms down the road, because making weak policies stronger is often easier than changing the status quo overnight. 

Build Back Better 

Women’s leadership undoubtedly made a difference during the pandemic. Yet women largely lack policy influence. The success stories of Iceland, Canada and Argentina notwithstanding, most countries have not put women in charge of COVID-19 response and recovery—and as a result, most pandemic policies are not gender-sensitive. 

The purpose of getting women to the decision-making table is not to check a box, but to make sure policymakers have a more complete understanding of the pandemic’s effects.

The purpose of getting women to the decision-making table is not to check a box, but to make sure policymakers have a more complete understanding of the pandemic’s effects. COVID-19 has laid bare the consequences of the gendered division of labor both for women’s individual well-beings and their countries’ futures. Women are the best-positioned to describe gender-related patterns and devise interventions, because they live with gender inequality every day. Throughout the pandemic—but also before—they have shouldered disproportionate care burdens at home and in society. They have experienced more precarity, more violence and worse mental health. Without their stories, governments too easily prioritize returning to an unequal, prepandemic “normal” that treated women and girls unfairly. 

Going back to prepandemic times will not fix the economic and social consequences of COVID-19, nor dampen the impact of the next crisis. The pandemic will continue to circulate as long as women lack access to health care and vaccines. Economies will not bounce back as long as women remain out the work force. But they can’t return to work if care work is undervalued and underpaid, and if men don’t share responsibility for nurturing families and communities. 

Feminists across the world are asking to build back better. It’s time to listen. 

Jennifer M. Piscopo is an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, and director of its Center for Research and Scholarship. Her writing on gender and politics has been published in The Washington Post, Boston Review, Smithsonian Magazine and Ms. Magazine, among other outlets. She has consulted extensively for U.N. Women on the gendered impacts of COVID-19.

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