COVID-19 must not set the clock back on gender equality

The COVID 19 outbreak is a public health crisis quite different than anything Europe has faced for many years. As education personnel and their trade unions grapple with the outbreak, we are supporting and informing member organisations in any way we can.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine measures implemented by most European governments are especially hard on women, as recently pointed out by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). Women are more likely to face a significant increase in unpaid care work, precarious employment schemes, and an increase in gender-based violence and harassment. 73% of education workers are women, and ETUCE calls for education employers and authorities to take the different needs of men and women into account when planning measures to contain the outbreak and its consequences.

Education workers are adapting in order to continue providing quality education to millions of students, often remotely, which can result in an increased workload. Additionally, caring and household responsibilities are likely to increase because children and older relatives are forced to stay at home. EIGE highlights that this type of unpaid work already falls disproportionately on women’s shoulders, with many working ‘double shifts’ in employment and the home. Education trade unions fear that the current situation risks further disrupting the work-life balance of women education workers, who will have to juggle the increased workload of distance teaching with greater emotional and domestic labour in the home.

ETUCE calls for decision makers to pay particular attention to the working conditions of education personnel working from home, and to the different needs of men and women. Questions regarding workload, work-life balance, and psychosocial wellbeing must be paramount when organising the work of education personnel in these extraordinary circumstances.

Women education workers are also more exposed to the risk of unemployment and income losses due to the shutdown. A recent Eurofound study on Gender Equality at Work found that women face more job insecurity, including in the education sector. This matches the results of EIGE’s research, as well as those of a recent ETUCE study, which shows that women in education are more likely to work under precarious employment conditions or temporary contracts. The pandemic has provoked the immediate closure of schools and universities and it is having has huge economic consequences. Women education workers are more likely to be placed on temporary unemployment schemes with lower remuneration and risk losing their jobs altogether. The COVID-19 outbreak and the economic crisis risk further increasing gender inequality in the education sector in all its forms: pay and pension gaps, horizontal and vertical gender segregation.

ETUCE demands that governments and education authorities protect women workers in the education sector from suffering a disproportionate economic impact from the COVID-19 outbreak. This crisis must not worsen existing gender inequalities in pay and employment conditions.

Furthermore, the current call for social isolation increases the risk of gender-based violence and domestic abuse. Workers in female-dominated professions like teaching are already more exposed to adverse social behaviour such as bullying, harassment and violence, as shown by the Eurofound study. ETUCE’s own research also shows that gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace and in wider society are an increasingly serious challenge for education personnel. With cyberbullying and online harassment already a serious issue for teachers and education staff, it is a real concern that quarantine measures and online teaching might expose women to new risks of gender-based violence while working. What is more, we cannot presume that these new forms of harassment will disappear immediately when students go back to classroom learning and face-to-face interaction with staff.

ETUCE insists that education workers must get the guidance and support needed to be safe during the pandemic, addressing gender-based violence and harassment including cyber-harassment.

Finally, the power imbalance between men and women in society means that women’s voices are not being heard enough as Europe navigates the COVID-19 outbreak. As EIGE points out, it is mostly men who are taking important decisions during the crisis, although these decisions affect men and women alike. In the education sector, women are under-represented in leadership and decision making positions despite making up a strong majority of workers in the sector overall.

ETUCE calls on governments, education authorities and school leaders to ensure that the different needs of men and women are taken into account before any measures to address the pandemic crisis are implemented.

The current crisis exposes and magnifies all kinds of inequalities in our society, including gender inequality. At the same time, due to the urgent nature of the situation, these issues are given less priority. The ETUCE Action Plan on Gender Equality provides inspiration and proposals, also relevant in this crisis to tackle the above-mentioned challenges in a longer-term perspective. This policy framework proposes a set of concrete actions to education trade unions and education personnel, covering topics like gender stereotypes and gender roles, difficulties in reconciling work and private life as well as vertical and horizontal gender segregation in the education sector.