Misconceptions of ‘The Pandemic as the Greatest Equaliser’ – Growing Challenges to Gender Equality in the Workplace during the Covid-19 Crisis

Statues of female steel workers with facemasks

14th August 2020

Many of us have heard the common phrase, ‘covid is the great equaliser’, being used to express our shared experience and hardship of the impact of the pandemic. However, upon reflection, our individual lived experiences of the pandemic cannot be described as anyway close to equal. The pandemic has shed light on many pre-existing inequalities in society and has highlighted and amplified the inadequate support for some of the most vulnerable in our society, such as those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. 

One perhaps unexpected inequality that has been amplified during the pandemic is gender inequality. Both an Garda Síochána and non-profit organisations such as Women’s Aid and Safe Ireland have released figures of increasing phone calls and disturbances relating to domestic abuse to women. Women’s Aid have reported a chilling 39% increase in domestic abuse related phone calls in recent months. Studies have also shown that lockdown has disproportionately negatively impacted women’s working lives rather than men. This has been linked to the burden of childcare during creche and school closures usually falling on women, even forcing them to resign in some cases. 

According to the European Commission, women are carrying out the majority of unpaid work in the home at this time. Another recent study undertaken by the University College London found that mothers working from home only achieve one hour of uninterrupted work (interrupted through tending to children, chores etc.) for every three hours uninterrupted of their male parent counterparts.

The announcement in June by the department of Education to fully reopen schools was therefore an extremely welcome one for many parents who would otherwise struggle to find adequate childcare during school times. Speaking from personal experience as a retail worker during the pandemic, many of my female colleagues had no option but to stay at home, as they were unable to find any sort of childcare during school and creche closures and grandparents who were cocooning were also unable to help out with child minding. This issue was not encountered by many male counterparts. However, the uncertainty of the current back-to-school-situation is still causing stress for many working parents.


“Women’s Aid have reported a chilling 39% increase in domestic abuse related phone calls in recent months”

Covid-19 case numbers are increasing, and backlash continues to arise from some teacher unions and principals over safety and legal concerns, including lack of public guidance on schools reopening. Teacher unions have recently stated that some schools may reopen on a staggered basis. The situation therefore continues to vacillate, just weeks before the planned reopening of schools. In turn, this fuels concerns that many parent’s careers may be jeopardised should they not be able to return to work, the majority of which being disproportionately female. 

Another more controversial facet of this matter  is the proposed actions by the government to compensate mothers whose babies were born during the pandemic. Following protests outside the Dail earlier last month and the establishment of the popular #ExtendMaternityLeave2020  social media campaign, Taoiseach  Micheál Martin announced that he will give a considered response to the proposal of extending maternity leave to those mothers.  This is due to the usual supports which are available in the months following childbirth, for example development checks and hospital appointments, being unavailable during lockdown.                         

This is compounded by the issue of limited capacity creche spaces as a result of public guidance measures which may obstruct some new mothers from returning to work as planned. Many have disagreed with the solution of extending maternity leave payments, which has yet to be confirmed months from now in the next budget in October. It has been argued that the real priority should be the ongoing lack of accessible and affordable childcare. Following the impact of lockdown, it is now an issue that needs to be addressed urgently in order to prevent undesirable impacts occurring to the work equality of mothers. 

These calls have been further amplified by the recent finding from the Council of Europe that equality in women’s pay and work progression is not guaranteed in Ireland. According to their Committee of Social Rights, Ireland is one of fourteen member states that have been found to be in violation of the legally binding European Charter in equality at work. If was found that, ‘lack of transparency is a major obstacle for victims of pay discrimination to prove discrimination and thus effectively enforce their rights’. Ireland has failed to produce statistics on the gender pay gap since 2014, when it had risen from 12.6% in 2006 to 13.9% in 2014. Female participation on boards of large companies stood at 22.4% in 2019, while the EU average was 27.8%. 

If one thing is clear from these figures and the mounting issues being encountered by working mothers during the pandemic, it is that immediate action and clarification is needed from the government in order to bridge these inequalities.



Featured photo by Tim Dennell




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