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A Caring Europe. Gender Relations after COVID-19

Agnès Hubert (College of Europe and Science Po) and Jane Jenson (Université de Montréal, CJMM)

The Chinese characters for crisis mean both danger and change-point. Such dualism is metaphorically useful to assess the unequal consequences of the pandemic among genders and the possibility of a “new normal” that would be more egalitarian and solidaristic. Many European organizations are generating research-based policy briefs and lobbying leaders for attention to women and frontline workers and carers and to gender-based violence. They reject the fiction that unpaid work is not work and that market forces adequately provide for the vulnerable. They promote the European Union’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, while advocating a paradigmatic shift towards a caring Europe, parity democracy, and a new growth model based on prioritizing human and environmental well-being. They hope the EU recovery plan agreed in July 2020 will launch this shift.

Dangers revealed …

The coronavirus crisis magnifies patterns of inequality persisting despite the EU’s decades-long commitment to gender equality. Europe’s high female employment rate has not translated into equality of income or status. More than a quarter of working-age women have a precarious job while rates for young, less educated and immigrant women are even higher. Some workers in a precarious job, such as retail sales and hospitality, immediately lost it when workplaces shuttered, often without any guarantee of a return to employment. Even more dramatic was the “surprise” that precarious jobs are essential jobs: frontline workers in hospitals (orderlies, cleaners, food service); care workers in residences for the elderly; in-home carers; pharmacy and grocery store clerks, and on and on. Frontline workers risked their health to stay with their precarious job, as did the millions working as nurses and doctors. Nor are these frontline jobs, and their negative health consequences, equitably distributed among women. While immigrants (both EU mobile and extra-EU) make up only 13% of what are termed “key workers” in the EU Labour Force Survey, they are concentrated in certain occupations. For women, the largest numbers are personal care workers or cleaners and helpers, occupations where exposure to the virus is high. Extra-EU migrants especially are in low-skilled (and low-paid) occupations. Not surprisingly, as in North America, immigrants are over-represented among both infections and deaths.

Beyond paid work is the unequal distribution of work at home. Before the pandemic, European women spent 13 hours more than men on unpaid care and housework each week. During the lockdown, reproductive tasks took longer; non-parental childcare and out-of-home meals disappeared and infected family members needed nursing. For those who were not laid-off, family care piled on hours of remote working.

Reproductive health suffered as needs for contraception and abortion went unmet. Pregnancy and childbirth became stressful where hospitals made draconian decisions about infection control. In lockdown and isolation, gender-based violence rose for LGBTI+ and heterosexual victims confined with their abusers. At the same time, protective and support services disappeared where judicial services closed, special units in hospitals and shelters reduced operation, and community groups paused their activities.

Might the crisis bring change?

Three positive signs

Most policies shaping gender relations during the COVID crisis fall within member state competence – health systems, wages and policies to protect income as well as choices about how to lock down. Nonetheless, there is scope for EU action via funding and leadership as well as treaty obligations. There are three positive signs that the EU may face up to the dangers just described, using this change point to move towards a sustainable caring Europe.

One is the massive recovery plan, agreed by the European Council on July 21. Cassandra's focus on the difficulty of negotiations, but its existence signals member states’ acceptance of a principle: overcoming the crisis requires solidarity. Grants available to struggling countries are sufficient to permit innovative measures of value, by other than financial returns. Instead of more-of-the-same, member states could propose to allocate EU funds to redesign institutional and in-home care work by, among other things, paying decent wages. They could orchestrate a “she-covery,” informed by data from previous crises that women take longer to recover lost ground. Member states may choose to boost women’s economic empowerment and ensure equal opportunities, but such choices are never guaranteed. The Next Generation EU funding proposal (May 2020) directed funds to sectors of predominantly male employment (construction, etc) while those mostly employing women (education, health, social services, hospitality) were less targeted. If this recovery plan is to foster innovation, groups dedicated to creating a caring Europe must mobilize to make it happen.

The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 provides a guide and another promising sign that a path towards a sustainable and caring Europe exists. Unveiled March 5th, at the start of COVID crisis, the timing was inauspicious, but the unfolding crisis confirmed the urgent need for action. Beyond goals for equal economic and political participation, a major focus of the strategy is combatting gender-based violence and stereotypes. It calls for specific actions by member states, from ratification of international conventions to combatting human trafficking and removing stereotypes in approaches to AI. Its advocacy of economic and political equality generated a list of actions to ensure gender balance in institutions as well as gender mainstreaming across the Commission.

A third sign that the combined influence of the health and economic crises could provoke movement towards a caring Europe is the institutional configuration. The leadership shift coming with renewal of the European Parliament, Commission, Council and Central Bank goes beyond symbolism: a number of the women in charge, starting with the Commission President, have expressed commitments to greater equality. It is not essentialism to anticipate them leading initiatives to achieve it. The von der Leyen Commission has the first-ever Equality Commissioner, whose priority was the Gender Equality Strategy a

nd its binding actions for this mandate. There is a high-level group to oversee gender mainstreaming across all portfolios. The EP is 40% female, and most political groups include feminists. Additionally, the German Presidency promised “to inject new impetus into gender-equality efforts.” In November 2020 an informal council of gender equality ministers will, inter alia., monitor support for women’s employment after COVID. For the immediate future, a trio-presidency declaration by Germany, Portugal and Slovenia commits to action for gender equality until the end of 2021.

The major conference on The Future of Europe, starting this autumn, is tasked with “a focus on topics that truly matter to our citizens.” Given that citizens profoundly experienced the need for change during the COVID crisis and the signs that a shift towards a gender equal and caring Europe is possible, a new vision of growth in which the EU could take the lead could emerge.

Agnès Hubert writes frequently on gender equality policies. She was a high-level civil servant in the European Commission and is currently Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, Bruges and President of the first European feminist think tank, Gender5+ (

Jane Jenson writes on EU social and equality policies. She is Professeure émérite at the Université de Montréal, and interim Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre Montreal. She is an Honorary Member of Gender5+

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