Equal opportunities for women on the labour market – impact of the coronavirus pandemic and prospects

"Equal opportunities for women on the labour market – impact of the coronavirus pandemic and prospects" was the title of the international conference of the IPEO platform organised from 16 to 17 September 2021 in Brixen/Bressanone by the AFB association (Arbeiter, Freizeit- und Bildungsverein) in cooperation with the European Centre for Workers' Questions - EZA with the support of the European Union. Over 60 participants from South Tyrol/Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Lithuania and Serbia attended the hybrid event, which welcomed 35 people on site in Brixen/Bressanone and 26 online.

Across Europe, coronavirus lockdowns have often caused a drop in paid employment and a loss of income for many workers. In an attempt to mitigate the negative effects of pandemic restrictions, a variety of schemes designed by individual states were introduced, which included short-time work, layoff freezes and financial subsidies. However, the pandemic has confirmed that reconciling work and family life is particularly difficult for women due to persistent structural hurdles. This was the conclusion drawn by researchers and experts at the IPEO international conference held at the Cusanus Academy in Brixen/Bressanone, Italy. The findings of numerous studies were supplemented by the concrete experiences of women who work in retail, catering, healthcare and cleaning businesses.

During the pandemic, women have worked gruelling extra hours in hospitals, old people's homes and commercial enterprises, in addition to bearing the brunt of domestic work, child-rearing and caregiving tasks. Forced to juggle work– at a workplace or remotely from home - parenting, caregiving and household chores, strained by family conflicts often triggered by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, women have been pushed to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. The combined effect of general working conditions and social policies, on the one hand, and the customary division of household chores, child rearing and caregiving tasks at home, on the other, causes a conflictual situation whereby the time women spend in paid employment reduces the time they have available for housework, while societal expectations concerning the role of women in the family put pressure on working women, which reduces their performance in the labour market. Reasoning backward does not change the picture.

There are four ‘traps’ that make women's lives difficult - all of which are well known, pre-existing and structural in nature: the labour market and the social system are tailored to a model family in which the husband is the main breadwinner and the wife takes care of the household and family life, at most earning an extra income. Periods of time spent at home on housework, child rearing and caregiving cause interruptions in a woman’s professional career and are not socially recognized, since it is unpaid work. Non-payment of contributions during these breaks also has negative effects on pension entitlement. At the same time, family policies lack bold and innovative decisions to enable a more balanced sharing of family responsibilities, letting it become the social standard.

From the women's perspective - as expressed in the presentations at this year's IPEO conference - the Covid 19 pandemic should be a turning point in the labour market and family policies: society must finally remove the hurdles that prevent women from achieving their life goals at work and in the family without being exposed to permanent stress. The participants also agreed on the role of men: fathers should be encouraged to help out more with housework, parenting and care giving - just as many did during the pandemic. Since negotiations on a more balanced and fair division of family responsibilities between mothers and fathers take place informally, large-scale awareness-raising work is needed to highlight the benefits of a good work-life balance.

In order for such models to become established in society, suitable legislative frameworks are needed. For example, it would be good to have an equal working time model, with public incentives for fathers to reduce their working time to 75% and mothers to increase their part-time work to 75% during a certain period of time. The parental allowance should be high enough to make it attractive for women and men and encourage them to take parental leave. With reference to childcare, instead of occasional, isolated options, an overall childcare programme for 0-14 year olds should be created that takes into account the regional framework conditions and meets the requirements of parents with children of different ages. The all-day school models are now being reconsidered on the grounds of affordability, time flexibility and coverage of afternoons and holidays.

After being praised for helping the system remain efficient, women in the social, health care and education professions are now justifiably demanding concrete improvements in the working conditions and more recognition for the work they do in those sectors. They are also calling for adjustments in the wage policy to ensure adequate old-age provision: today's low-wage or minimum-wage earners  run the risk of being dependent on additional social security benefits when they reach old age. With reference to ‘quality work’, the pandemic has taught us that both the economy and society must pay more attention to physical and mental stress factors. Workers are not functional automatons but human beings with a soul. Labour market policies should focus on supporting women in gaining access to the labour market and stabilising paid employment. Priority must be given to strengthening digital skills and encouraging STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), for which specific training courses are required.

The pandemic has also highlighted the negative consequences of labour market deregulation. Employment contracts were allowed that provide for low pay and/or only limited access to social security benefits. Precarious work has led to the emergence of the so-called working poor, a category of workers who are unable to make ends meet despite being employed. Since the gap between rich and poor is widening, combating poverty should be a priority for the social policy of every government. Education is key to creating more equal opportunities between social classes: children from socially disadvantaged families, in particular, can derive great benefit from targeted educational support.

States have spent heavily on mitigating the effects of the pandemic, helping businesses and workers and alleviating rampant poverty. Now they need to take the next step and ensure that precarious workers, the unemployed, people below the poverty line and the socially disadvantaged have real opportunities for inclusion and social participation through universal social support mechanisms. Finally, in the transition to a more eco-conscious and environmentally friendly society, vulnerable groups must be prevented from losing out once again. Due attention must be paid to a variety of topics, including the cost of living, energy and housing, as well as to tariffs for services of general interest, but also to adequate and dignified old-age provision arrangements.