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This virus is not gender neutral

Recognising how much of the burden women are carrying in this crisis - and how much they always carry - may take us closer to a society in which caring work is seen and valued for the essential work it is, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw

COVID-19 has thrown a window wide open, and through it we have a new view into what matters most to us. During this crisis it is caring, caring in its many different forms, that we will rely on  to get us through. But to get us through in the best possible place more connected, more resilient, not less, the caring work and the people who do it must be seen and supported, especially by those who have the power to make the biggest difference.

Our personal strengths and systems weaknesses are being revealed

As people, as communities, as countries we are being scraped back to the bone as we struggle with the uncertainty and anxiety that this global pandemic has brought. It is revealing so many of our strengths, the strong enduring connections between us as humans who care and hold deep love for each other and this world we get to live in. COVID-19 is also revealing all the weaknesses in the economic and social systems and structures we have built.

One of those weaknesses is how deeply the systems we have built ignore the fundamental importance of caring work in our communities. During this crisis the screw is getting turned ever tighter on the people who do most of this caring work. Now is the time to remodel this system not double down on it.

Women’s work is never done (and is always undervalued)

Marilyn Waring, and Prue Hyman, among many, have been showing us for years that when people build systems that ignore the work of women, it is to our collective detriment. Because it is this work which makes our world function.  When we recognise it and support it our mutual wellbeing is increased in uncountable ways. When we don't recognise or support caring work properly, it is all of us who will falter.

I can give you data and facts on the enormous financial value of women's work as a percentage of GDP.  I could tell you that the data shows women do the majority of the caring work in society, and they do it while they are working another job. I could tell you that when a job is done mainly by women it is valued less than those done mainly by men. That women tend to do more jobs in traditional ‘caring’ roles e.g. nursing and care for the elderly. But right now I don't need to tell you about what the research reveals, because as we move through the crisis of COVID-19, we can now see in stark terms how the work being done by women is critical to help us through and how unseen it is .

Where is the caring work being done and by who right now?

For people with children in childcare, at school and some at university, a whole new job was just added into the work week - caring for children. And the pressure is on as our employment system,  which ignores the fact that it is caring work that enables paid work to happen, comes hard up against that reality. Without people having, caring for and educating children, our measured economy (that which we count for GDP purposes) wouldn’t happen and there would not be a workforce into the future to continue to create this economy.

Currently most employers don’t recognise that our system of work is leveraged off the unpaid and undervalued work of people caring for children.

If in this COVID-19 crisis, employers insist it is business as usual then it is a recipe for a mental health and social health disaster. Now children are at home all day. What happens in a household with two working full time parents or even more challenging, one with a sole parent? What about one in which women work part-time and do part time caring that has now become full time? Or in intergenerational households where grandparents cared for children and can no longer?  

Currently most employers don’t recognise that our system of work is leveraged off the unpaid and undervalued work of people caring for children. This means those doing the caring work (who are mainly women) get the screw turned tighter when their employer insists on ‘business as usual’. That some of these employers are within the very government asking people to be kind and work together to help stop the spread is galling.

Caring for others

It is not just children who need more care during COVID-19. Many of us have multiple responsibilities across our community,  older parents, family or friends who we need to stay away from others. Disabled people are now more limited in a world that already severely limits their abilities. They must have a lot more help during COVID-19 to ensure they are not impacted unequally  by this virus.

Much of this care is already provided by women, many who themselves are experiencing health and wellbeing issues. In Pacific families and communities particularly, women were already doing a great deal of caring work in their communities alongside their paid work. Paid work that is more often low paid and precarious. Where does the extra care come from during COVID-19 if not from these women?  It is the women in low paid jobs, with large caring responsibilities who are put under the most pressure if neither people in government or employers formally recognise the need to massively step up support for caring  work.

Paid caring work is also dominated by women

During COVID-19 everyone working in healthcare will have a huge workload, will need to take extensive precautions to stay well, and will be under enormous stress as they work to keep us well as a collective. It also happens that the majority of those people are women. Women do most of the caring for people in hospitals, in nurse homes, in the community.  Women who are then going home to do caring work there too.  The  pressure on them is immense.

None of this is to say that women are inherently better at caring or talking about caring than men, they just have more practice at it. For this reason it is important those making the decisions about this pandemic have the breath of skills and experience needed to understand how to support the caring work we need to help us emerge. The question is do they?

Is an equity lens being applied to decision making?

I have no special insight into the many policy decisions being made in haste during this crisis. However if prior behaviour does predict current behaviour (and there are arguments both ways on this), then there is a serious risk that the people making decisions that will affect us all over the next days, months and years are not thinking about equity. And they must. Even better they absolutely can.

It is in crisis that transformation happens

If the last two weeks have proven anything it is that many actions we thought impossible for people in government to take are absolutely possible. The actions they take in crisis will have long term impacts, even if people making decisions are thinking short-term.  How they make those decisions will determine whether we can advance a society in which caring work is seen and valued for the essential work it is.  To make transformation happen the  discourse needs to highlight for people the better systems we can implement and how.

In The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy wrote  “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” And as my friend Nadine Hura so beautifully put it in this poem, this is that quiet day.

For people in government, now is the hour, so cometh the man. The role of men here in pushing back is critical. Men still hold many of the keys in our most powerful institutions. These men can unlock so much potential, welcome those with a different view on the world into the decision making, be responsible, be helpful, be caring. Think long term. Embrace your role as representing the needs of all, not just some in our communities. Wellbeing policy is really just policymaker speak for caring.

Measurement will be a critical component of people in governments action during COVID-19. If we do not measure what is happening to different groups of women, Maori and Pacific women, those with disabilities, those on low incomes, during COVID-19 policy makers will fail to see the impacts and not be in a place to adjust their actions.

For people who run organisations and lead staff, adjust your expectations. It may never be business as usual again and that is okay. There is an opportunity to change how we approach work, how we value it and what matters about it, for all people not just women.  For now adjust your productivity expectations for everyone. Make it clear you prioritise the caring work everyone is doing as this is what matters to get us through.

It is together we will get through COVID-19 in the best way possible. However, “together” is more nuanced  and deeper than people think. Together means responding to different lives, and different contexts, not expecting the  same of everyone. Now is the time to bring that depth to the surface.

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