Shirong Zhou, European Social Policy MSc, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh
The pandemic has highlighted the need for an improved work-life balance policy in order to increase women’s participation in the labour market, thus guaranteeing a sustainable economic growth in the post-pandemic period within the EU.
As the coronavirus pandemic continued unabated in the European countries, the shift towards a more flexible form of working had been accelerated due to the lockdown and the rule of social distancing. Homeworking is likely to become a central part of the post-pandemic future, but the case is different for women compared with men and women tend to suffer more from the pandemic.
On 1st July, Dr Clare Wenham, Assistant Professor of Global Health Policy Care, was giving an interview discussing the local lockdown when the interview was interrupted by her daughter who kept asking questions to the BBC reporter. And the same thing happened with Anneliese Dodds in April. These scenes reflect a problem that cannot be neglected, which is more responsibility has fallen on women in childcaring during the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in an imbalance between woman and man in both family relations and the labour markets.
It seems that women are more resilient than men during the pandemic in terms of the death rate, but that is not the case when it comes to the labour market. Eurostat’s unemployment data shows that while the unemployment rate for men in the EU increases from 6.1% in March to 7.1 % in September, the increase for women was higher, from 6.7% to 7.9% (Brondino and Genev, 2020a; 2020b). The higher unemployment rate among women indicates that the labour market still splits along a gender line, leaving women more vulnerable in the pandemic. According to Eurostat, of the most common occupations that women take up, the highest proportion relate to personal care, cleaner and office clerk, whereas men are more likely to work as a science and engineering technician, builder and or mobile plant operator.
Sectors in which women make up a large fraction of the workforce, except for healthcare, are highly fungible and unstable as most of them require few skills and the entry-level is relatively lower, therefore those services are more likely to be influenced by the lay-off policy of companies when facing financial strain during the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, Telecommuting also plays an important role in the home-working trend, allowing people to do their jobs remotely (Alon, et al., 2020). It is found that 28% of male workers can work in highly tele-commutable occupations, 6% higher than female employees. With this characteristic, there will be fewer employment opportunities for those female jobseekers and the employment barrier becomes higher because of the employment of such technology.
Another salient aspect explaining the lower labour market participation of women is that they are still taking the main responsibility in caring for one or more children in the family, especially when large-scale daycare centres and schools are shut down, implying the difficulty that women tend to have combining work demands with parenting. For those couples with young children aged under 12, more than 35 hours per week were devoted by women taking care of their family and women are less likely to be employed in a full-time paid job because of that (Parent-Thirion, et al, 2017).
As people are forced to work at home during the pandemic, the unpaid work for women increases, manifesting in the responsibility for home schooling and childcare falling to them, which blurs the boundary between work and life. Consequently, the reduction of their work hours and the shortage of time available to learn new skills further leads to their poor performance in the labour market. Single mothers, particularly, making up nearly 85% of all single parents in the EU, are at risk of poverty and social exclusion (Nieuwenhuis, 2019; 1).
A good work-life balance can contribute to women’s labour market participation in two aspects. Firstly, training opportunities are more accessible to women with less care responsibility. Female job seekers and working mothers are struggling to spare some time to learn skills that are essential to their employment prospects. However, they are not able to attend training courses and development programmes which are closely related to either their career opportunities or promotion prospects due to the need to take care of their children.
Another advantage is that work-life balance is positively correlated to women leadership success (Wei Hua, 2018). With more women becoming senior leaders in the labour market, management would view female employees more from a female perspective and give more care to them. In this case, the structure of the labour market will be optimised internally.
In the current pandemic, it is not easy to change the gender-divided labour market and the direct discriminations against women in the labour market, which requires a longer period of time and the change of ideas. However, providing more childcare services and developing suitable policies enabling men to take more responsibility in families to achieve work-life balance is more accessible and can pave the road for women’s career progression in the labour market. Moreover, there has been emerging literature proving a positive correlation between gender equality and economic growth, and such type of policy can improve the gender equality in the labour market, leading to more sustainable economic growth in European countries.
The EU work-life balance directives entered into force in 2019, aiming to increase women’s participation in the labour market and reconcile people’s work and private life. These policy frameworks and measures include the introduction of mandatory paternity, parental leave and carers’ leave. At the same time, the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC) has committed to share good practices of family policy and providing simple introductions of relating topics to member states. Most EU countries responded to such policy framework during the pandemic, such as a special parental leave in Finland, temporal changes in parental leave payment in Germany and voluntary furlough scheme for employees in the UK. Although a number of countries were not able to enact policies concerning a balance between work and life, interest groups such as trade unions in Netherland were trying to push for special paternal leave.
Just as Dr. Franziska Giffey puts it, ‘Gender equality in the labour market is not a luxury. On the contrary: it will make the EU more socially and economically robust. Especially in times of crisis’. Evidently, the work-life balance policy has not been taken into serious consideration by member states and its significance for EU economy recovery and women’s position in the labour market is overlooked at the national level.
The largest barrier allowing women to participate actively in the labour market continues to arise from the conflict between work and care responsibilities. Work-life balance, one of the most important factors contributing to the gender inequality index, still needs improving among European countries. Alongside efforts to reform organisational culture with the help of publicity, it is more urgent to reduce the exacerbating childcare strain on women, transforming women’s leadership gained from work-life balance to the impetus of top-down organisational culture change inside the labour market.
Belgium’s introduction of a special COVID-19 parental leave scheme provides a possible solution, seeking to deal with such work-life conflict on women by extending both paternal and maternal leave with allowances as well as introducing a more flexible parental leave approach. Allowing employees to take parental leave at 50% or 20% of their full-time working hours and claiming a higher rate of allowance encourage fathers to take more caring responsibility, thus making time for mothers to develop their careers.
It is still doubtful whether or not these temporary measurements developed in the crisis can be modified by EU countries into more applicable policies devoting to improve the work-life balance after the pandemic. However, it can be said that gender equality in the labour market is conducive to sustainable economic growth. In order to guarantee a more equal environment in the labour market and mitigate the negative social impact of COVID-19 on women, developing proper family policies in the EU to achieve a satisfying work-life balance is the most accessible measure in comparison with governments’ efforts to change gender structure or prejudice culture in the labour market, thus facilitating economic recovery in the post-pandemic period.
Any EU countries leaving work-life balance policy aside will suffer from a sluggish economy caused by the wider gap between men and women. If we are to bridge the gender gap in the labour market, an adaptable work-life balance policy at both national and EU levels is needed.
Alon, T. M., Doepke, M., Olmstead-Rumsey, J., and Tertilt, M., 2020, ‘The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality’, National Bureau of Economic Research.
Brondino, R., and Genev, B., 2020a, ‘April 2020-Euro area unemployment at 7.3%-EU at 6.6%’, Eurostat news release, 88/2020.
Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/10294960/3-03062020-AP-EN.pdf/b823ec2b-91af-9b2a-a61c-0d19e30138ef [Accessed 24 Dec. 2020]
Brondino, R., and Genev, B., 2020b., ‘April 2020-Euro area unemployment at 7.3%-EU at 6.6%’, Eurostat news release, 163/2020.
Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/10663786/3-30102020-CP-EN.pdf [Accessed 24 Dec. 2020]
Nieuwenhuis, R., 2019, ‘Directions of thought for single parents in the EU. Community, work & family, pp.1–8’.
Parent-Thirion, A., Biletta, I., Cabrita, J., Llave, O. V., Vermeylen, G., Wilczynska, A., and Wilkens, M., 2017, ‘6th European Working Conditions Survey: 2017 update’, Publications Office of the European Union.
Wei Hua, Duan; Hasnaa Nik Mahmood, Nik; Normeza Wan Zakaria, Wan; Cun Lin, Li; Xia Yang, Xia, 2018, ‘The relationship between work-life balance and women leadership performance: The mediation effect of organizational culture’, International journal of engineering & technology (Dubai), 7(4.9), p.8.