Long before the impacts of COVID-19, women all over the world experienced gender inequality in social, political, and economic spheres. Feminists have long advocated for the importance of women’s economic empowerment as a means to escape poverty, exploitative relationships in the workplace and in the home, and to create autonomy. Globally, the labour market is shaped by societal attitudes and stereotypes concerning marginalized groups, such as racial/ethnic groups, women, immigrants, disabled people, and poor people. As a result, women (often women of color) perform work under the harshest conditions, do the most unpaid labor, and “bear the brunt of the widening wealth gap.”

Furthermore, COVID-19 has revealed what it takes to keep a household and society functioning, and our reliance on care and service work. The majority of the front-line response to COVID-19 is done by women who we depend on to care for children and the sick and elderly, to maintain a clean, safe environment, and to provide essential services. It is uncoincidental that women, who tend to be employed in precarious work at higher rates than men, are more vulnerable to the virus, and the least likely to have paid sick days.

In response to the lack of economic support from the government, more than 80 nonprofits across Ontario signed a collective letter demanding Ontario Premier Doug Ford legislate 10 permanent paid sick days. They write that “the lives of essential workers must be valued as much as our society values their labour.” Health and government recommendations to stay home or work from home operate under the assumption that everyone has a safe home from which they can work and can afford to not go into work if they are sick. 

We need a feminist response to COVID-19 that accounts for the gendered and racialized disparities in the labour market that push women, specifically women of color, into precarious work and truly values the work and people that we have deemed essential. As Bonnie Hammer of NBC Universal writes, “we have an opportunity to fix a system that was broken long before the pandemic, and rebuild an economy that finally works for working women.” 

The Intersection of Gender, Race & Labour

The labour market plays an important role in the creation of identity categories (ie. race, gender). Generally, women have been positioned in the labor market in relation to their ability to perform reproductive labor. In the making of the capitalist system (in Canada and the U.S.), gender roles were essential to divide men and women’s lives into public and private spheres. Where men were the providers and “breadwinners” who engaged in productive paid labour, women were delegated to do the unpaid reproductive labour: household maintenance, child-rearing, and emotional caregiving. Feminist analysis of capitalism argues that the wealthy status of men is in part due to this “agreement” where women essentially sacrificed their ability to earn wages to “maintain existing life and to reproduce the next generation.” 

Despite Canadian women entering the formal labour market at steadily increasing rates from 1950 until 1990, most women in Canada still find themselves employed in the “5 C’s: clerical, cleaning, catering, cashiering and care.” Because historically, much of this work was unpaid and performed by women, it is still largely undervalued and underpaid. Women are more likely to experience barriers in the advancement of professional careers or landing leadership positions and may be discriminated against based on stereotypes that women’s careers are secondary to their roles in families. 

Further, when many women entered the workforce, their workloads at home did not decrease. Arlie Hochschild coined the term “the Second Shift” to describe the unpaid household and childcare duties that followed the paid day’s work. Unpaid work is almost universally expected to be performed by women, which limits the amount of time they can spend on paid work and ultimately keeps women from achieving economic independence.

Alternatively, women’s entrance into the workforce meant that many working-class women or women of color, who sat lower on the hierarchy of the labour market, were then employed to take on other women’s domestic work. As a result, Black women in Quebec still find themselves over-represented in traditionally “female” jobs, which are undervalued, underpaid, and precarious. Journalists Laity Fary Ndiaye and Marlihan Lopez explain that “job insecurity and the wage gap go hand-in-hand with racist and sexist stereotypes imposed on them” in relation to caregiving. The era of slavery birthed the trope of the black “Mammy” who raised the slave master’s children and was depicted as a loyal and devoted domestic worker. This kind of ideology still shapes the labour market today, as the reality is, racialized people around the world “provide cheap labour for the capitalist system.”

The intersections of race and gender within the labor market contribute to the  “feminization of poverty,” a term used to describe how women and girls tend to be overrepresented among the world’s poor population. Despite the level of female participation in the labour force being roughly two-thirds that of men, and women carrying out more than 75% of unpaid work (childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, cleaning) globally, the gender-wage gap is widening. In fact, the UN predicts that 47 million more women and girls will have fallen into extreme poverty by the end of 2021.

Women’s Paid & Unpaid Labour during COVID-19 

COVID-19 has put a strain on an already stratified labour market and has disproportionately affected industries that are overrepresented with female workers, such as retail (43% women), hospitality/leisure/entertainment (54% women), and education in the U.S. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) calculates that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs, and further, 4.5% of women’s employment is at risk in the pandemic globally, compared with 3.8% of men’s employment. A CNN article reported that in the U.S, 140,000 women lost their jobs in January 2021 alone, and according to a survey in March 2021, nearly 4 out of 10 women in developing countries reported closing their businesses as a result of the pandemic. 

Existing gender inequalities make women vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID-19, not only because women tend to be employed in industries that are the most affected by the pandemic, but also because the virus has significantly increased the burden of unpaid care. With national school and daycare closures, 2 million women in the U.S. “stepped up at home, either by cutting hours or leaving jobs entirely.” Although largely undervalued by society, the MGI calculated that before COVID-19, the monetary value of women’s unpaid labour in the U.S. is worth $10 trillion, or 13% of the GDP. The societal expectation that women are solely responsible for care-giving has been exacerbated by COVID-19, along with the narrative that women’s labour is more disposable than men’s. According to a global World Values Survey, “more than half of the respondents in South Asia and MENA [Middle East and North Africa] agreed that men have more right to a job than women when jobs are scarce.” Therefore, women may be more likely to sacrifice paid labour during a crisis in order to care for children or sick relatives. 

The Importance of Paid Sick Leave for Women 

The gendered nature of the labour market has ultimately created the conditions for many women to be employed in precarious work where they work for lower wages, have less job stability, and are less likely to have paid sick days. Research from the B.C. Employment Precarity Survey conducted in 2019 found that 81% of BC workers earning under $40,000 per year and 89% of workers earning under $30,000 a year don’t have paid sick days. However, in the same year, 74% of Canada’s highest-paid workers had access to paid sick days. Women are disproportionately affected by these policies at a rate of 64%, as well as racialized people and immigrants. 

Further, the industries that tend to be the most dominated by women are also industries that are the most heavily exposed to COVID-19 because of their in-person nature, making it harder for women to abide by the “work from home” recommendations. Women are more likely to work in industries where tips are essential to their income, and many may feel as though they have no choice but to go to work, even if they are feeling sick. A Health study in Ontario found that up to 25% of people have reported going to work despite feeling sick, which directly contradicts public health orders and contributes to the ongoing spread of the virus.  

As women become the new “breadwinners” and contribute to roughly 64% of American household incomes, women not having access to paid sick days and losing pay can affect the entire family. A 2009 report found that parents without paid sick days are “more than twice as likely to send a sick child to school or daycare as parents with paid sick days.” Precarious workers are being put in a lose-lose situation, between putting themselves, their families, and others at risk or being able to afford their basic needs. Paid sick days could be a significant way to decrease the spread of disease and support low-income workers who are the most vulnerable to the economic devastation of the pandemic. Despite COVID-19 demonstrating how fundamental this labour is to the functioning of our society, without paid sick days it becomes evident that the state values profit over people. 

A feminist response to COVID-19 would acknowledge the value of the work performed by women, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and post-pandemic. The MGI has calculated that action towards gender equity could add $13 trillion to the global GDP in 2030, demonstrating that gender equality generally benefits the economy and society. Conversely, they predict that not taking action towards gender equity with investments in education, family planning, and unpaid care work could cost the economy about $1.5-2 trillion. 10 permanent paid sick days could alleviate some of the burden being placed on women during COVID-19. However, while this pandemic may be a temporary strain on the world, we must advocate for permanent change to the labour market and the societal beliefs that hinder women’s ability to succeed.