COVID-19, gender and care

Professor Kirstein Rummery, Professor in Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Photo of a young boy being homeschooled by his mother in his bedroom

Professor Kirstein Rummery Explores the relationship between COVID-19, gender, and caring responsibilities. The virtual lecture is available to watch online, and a transcript is provided below.

I’m Professor Kirstein Rummery, and I am going to talk to you about COVID-19, gender and care, and some of the lessons we can apply from my research to help us understand what is happening during COVID-19.

I am particularly interested in the gendered impact of COVID-19. Is it making gender inequality worse? We can see in some respects that it’s certainly having a differential impact on men and women. We know that men are more likely to die from COVID-19, but we can also see that the wider impact is affecting women more than men. What does my research tell us about why?

Occupational segregation

Firstly, we have all changed the way we work: those of us who can are working remotely from home. Women are far more likely to be working from home than men because of occupational segregation; women are more likely to be clustered in occupations that are working from home. For example, around 90% of primary school teachers and around 70% of secondary school teachers are women. Overall, in the teaching profession, there are more women than men. We also see more women than men in administration roles. Again, a lot of this work can be done remotely. Finally, a lot of the public sector and public organisations such as local authorities, the Department for Works and Pensions, etc. will be working remotely. Around 70% of public administrators are women, and they are predominantly working from home.

In my area of work (higher education and research) women’s submissions to academic journals have plummeted in March and April, while men’s submissions soared – they are at least 50% higher than the same period in same period last year. Why? What are women doing right now while they are working from home? We have young children and school aged children at home with us full time – women are more likely to be doing most of the parenting.

Caring roles

Research indicates that 70% of the hands-on parenting for school-age children is done by women. It is overwhelmingly women that help their children with school work rather than men. So, we can reasonably suppose that this is what’s happening. If you ask around your friends and family, then you will likely find this. We know that housework has always been gendered, but we are all at home more now. That means that we are making more mess and having to clean up more mess. 90% of house work is done by women, even when both members of the household work full time. Women are also more likely than men to be caring for a disabled or older relatives. It’s overwhelmingly women doing this work. Spouses doing caring it is about 50% gender split, but intergenerational care – of parents, or disabled children – is almost always women. Research indicates that it is overwhelmingly women who are taking on pastoral care roles, the emotional and mental health wellbeing of colleagues, students and pupils.


How do we value this work? This slide shows two jobs that at the moment are fundamental to how we are tackling COVID-19. On the left is someone working in a care home, and on the right is a picture of some refuse workers. We would probably all agree that both of these roles are vital to keep our society function in the best of times, and certainly at the moment.  Both of these people are employed directly by local authorities. The female care worker is likely to be earning around £9 per hour while the men undertaking the refuse collection are likely to be earing around £12-13 per hour. Why is this the case? Do we value our bins more than our elderly population? Of course not – it’s not that the work is differently valued, but the market values the work differently. Yes, refuse is collection is difficult work, but so does care work. Caring also requires substantial training. So why is there a pay disparity? We pay the refuse collector more because we see collecting the bins as men’s work and therefore higher status and higher pay. We pay the carer less because it is seen as women’s work and therefore lower status and lower pay. This is why we have a gender pay gap in the UK.

So why do we undervalue care work? The first reason is that we don’t immediately see the value of care work in the economy. Women do what is called “Reproductive” labour – there’s no factory made things at the end, just a person who is cared for. It is difficult to attach a monetary value to that as we can’t sell that on the market. Therefore that labour is hidden from the market, as opposed to “productive” labour – things we can sell and attach a value to.

Secondly, we see care as something that women naturally do.  This comes from the idea that women naturally take care of young children because the give birth to them. This replicates throughout the life course, so mothers rather than fathers will take time off from work to care for small children, and are more likely to work part time to care for older children. They also are more likely to reduce their work, or leave it, to care for older or disabled relatives. Whether that is natural not, it also has a rational reason behind it – women often earn less than men. If somebody has to leave the labour market, it makes more sense for a women to do that (in a heterosexual relationship).

This means that not only is it women overwhelmingly undertaking the care work, but we tend to see care work as feminised work. We see nursing, childcare, social care etc. as naturally the domain of women. It’s not that men don’t do this work, but it is generally women. This is why primary schoolteachers (predominantly women) are usually paid less than secondary teachers (who are more likely to be men), why nurses are paid less than doctors, and why hands-on social care workers are usually paid less than social care managers (who again tend to be overwhelmingly male). Care work doesn’t just involve caring for someone, but caring about someone. There is often an emotional connection underpinning this work, a human connection, which is again still seen as women’s work.

Finally, we tend to see care work as unskilled – often because it is emotional rather than rational. This is nonsense – you have to be everything from a negotiator, a chef, an educator, a planner to look after young children.

To sum up, we undervalue care work because women do it, and we undervalue women because they do care work. It’s a vicious circle.

COVID-19 and gender equality

What does this mean for gender equality as we try to battle COVID-19? We can see in many sectors that women’s productivity is going to decrease because they are doing the unpaid care work – like the example of fewer women submitting articles to academic journals. The gender pay gap (because it focuses on productive rather than reproductive labour) is likely to get wider. Women are much less likely to be able to return to work until schooling and childcare are in place. Women are more likely to be using public transport, so that system needs to be up and running before they can fully return to work. Women are much more likely to be the frontline workers – nurses, social care workers – who are at risk of contracting COVID-19. There is an economic recession coming. From our experience of austerity, we know that women bore 75% of the costs, so they are very likely to bear most of the costs of this recession.

What options can social policy give us to help mitigate this gender equality? Universal Basic Income – everyone having enough money to meet their basic needs, rather than paying them part of their wages – would equalise the income inequality between men and women, and would enable people to care without financial penalty.

We also need to start valuing paid care work more. We need to pay social carers, nurses, teachers and child carers much more. We need to value caring about people as much as we value caring for people.

So in my field, we need to value pastoral care as much as we value submissions to academic journal.

We need to value neighbourhood and voluntary care that is holding our communities together and filling in the gaps left by formal services that are overwhelmed by COVID-19. We need to stop overvaluing male work and undervaluing female work.

Finally, we need to see childcare and social care as a social investment. For every £1 we spend on childcare we get £5 back in the local economy. I am currently undertaking research to understand what return we get for investment in social care. It enables unpaid carers to work, and disabled and older people to work, and contribute socially, politically and culturally to their communities. More information can be found on the slide, and on my webpage.

Professor Kirstein Rummery, May 2020

Theme by the University of Stirling