As long as women are not free, the people are not free

Insights from writer and columnist, Van Badham, on the current state of play for women

The coronavirus pandemic has been a shared experience of fear, displacement and frustration, but its material effects have not been felt equally. UOW alumna Van Badham writes that although everyone has faced unprecedented challenges from the (seemingly, unending) virus, women have worn the worst of the economic and social impact of COVID-19.

In 2020, the United Nations reported that over two decades extreme poverty had shown signs of global decline. These comments were made, alas, in the context of discussing “massive job losses, shrinking of economies and loss of livelihoods” brought by the economic ructions of the virus.

Forty years of neoliberal economic models as orthodox policy worldwide produced only fragile gains, at a cost of privatised, outsourced, deregulated or shut down worker and welfare services. These weakened social protection systems left many of the poorest in society without defence when disaster struck. The improving economic fortunes of women were specifically subjected to sudden reversal.

The UN is now reporting that the aftershocks of coronavirus are likely to tip the total number of women and girls worldwide who live on USD 1.90 a day or less to 435 million people. As the pandemic-induced poverty surge exists within an established gendered poverty gap, a larger proportion of women have been pushed into extreme poverty. In 2021, the resulting ratio had put 118 women aged 25 to 34 in extreme poverty for every 100 men. The UN believes that there will be 121 poor women for every 100 poor men by 2030.

Why? A coronavirus impact report released by the International Labour Organisation in January 2021 stated the gender case plainly:

“Globally and across all regions and country income groups, women have been affected by employment loss to a greater extent than men,” it read.

In the first place, women are overrepresented in the heavily casualised, low-paying food service, retail and entertainment industries hardest hit by the virus; globally, 40 per cent of all employed women – 510 million of them – work in these sectors, compared to 36.6 per cent of employed men.

There are gendered dynamics to the experience of economic dislocation. Ancient, sexist social prejudices enhance and entrench comparative economic disempowerment, which in turn is used as a pretext for the prejudice. As women consistently hold less secure jobs than male workers, interrupted economic activity devastates women’s economic independence and increases their exploitation. In the wake of coronavirus, women who face intersectional marginalisations are exposed to compounding risks of unsafe work, exposure to violence and even increased likelihood of coronavirus transmission and fatality.

The disastrous experience of coronavirus has allowed us to properly illustrate the size of the broader, gendered precarity that bubbles underneath modern economies. The sectors understood to be essential during coronavirus – aged care, childcare, disability services, health services – are overwhelmingly feminised, and, as the pandemic continued, were revealed to be high-risk for transmission of the virus as well as insecure, undervalued and underpaid. Consider; globally, 70 per cent of health workers are women – but while the gender pay gap across all industries worldwide sits at 16 per cent, in the health sector it’s a whopping 28 per cent.

This isn’t a “somewhere else” problem. The local numbers on women’s economic disadvantage are consistent with worldwide trends and dire. A July 2020 report from Australia’s McKell Institute found a 7.1 per cent decline in the number of Victorian women in jobs just from March that year within the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) collection of weekly payroll data. By July 2020, the rate of female job loss was almost five times the rate for men – and this was before Melbourne’s second lockdown. In April 2020, more than half a million Australians lost their jobs, 55 per cent of them women; ABS monthly labour force data showed the highest number of Victorian women unemployed ever.

As Australia grapples with the reality of violence against women and the abuse of women in the workplace, material conditions are entirely relevant to understanding of the prevailing dynamics of gender exploitation. A devaluing of women’s labour in the workplace manifests in the unequal distribution of unpaid labour at home. Even before COVID-19, women already did double the hours of unpaid work in the home than men – a proportion that only worsened during outbreaks of the virus. By June 2020, social researchers Rae Cooper and Sarah Mosseri found that even as mothers scrambled to maintain paid work during lockdowns, they added an extra hour each day of unpaid housework and four extra hours of childcare. Men added only 30 extra minutes of housework and two additional hours of childcare.

This, alas, is the benign end of gendered domestic devaluation. We’ve long known from research conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 2012 that women who are financially dependent on their partners are more likely to be abused by them. They’re also less likely to have the means to leave these abusers.

The eruption of women’s political rage across Australia in the Women’s March 4 Justice protests of 2021 may have been triggered by the Federal Government’s mishandling of sexual misconduct and assault allegations, but there’s a context to the gendered frustration that’s wider and deeper than one issue. It’s a sense of material precarity and vulnerability to unequal gender dynamics that coronavirus didn’t create but has painfully exacerbated. The pressures – economic, material, social, domestic – that have been disproportionately placed on women over the course of the pandemic have been complex and debilitating.

You can only keep contents under pressure for so long before explosions become inevitable.

Van Badham holds a BA/BCA (Hons) from UOW and won the 2020 UOW Alumni Award for Professional Excellence. She is a writer and regular columnist for Guardian Australia. Her 2021 book about the politics of post-truth and disinformation pipelines, QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults, is published by Hardie Grant.