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Coronavirus: Duty (or Burden) of Care - part 2

June Ip
June 11, 2020
Categories: Advocacy Feminism 

By June Ip, guest blogger
Part 1 of this series

Firstly, the pandemic has likely changed shopping behaviour forever. Many who had never purchased items online before have been forced to give it a go, and in doing so, realized the convenience of it all. Meanwhile, those who were accustomed to shopping online pre-pandemic, mostly did so for specific product categories while other products were still purchased in brick-and-mortar shops. Add that to the fact that many brick-and-mortar retail shops that were forced to close are likely to, once their operations resume, accelerate their e-commerce activities as a way to capture the new comfort levels consumers have with online purchasing, as well as a hedge against future business disruptions. 

This shift to online retail has profound consequences for women, who in pre-pandemic times, made up the majority of retail workers seeking flexibility to schedule work hours around their children’s needs. With e-commerce’s greater focus on warehouse and delivery operations than merchandising and clerking, the many women laid off or terminated due to the pandemic will have a harder time finding new work in retail, according to a fashion industry analysis published by Bloomberg.

Secondly, most public health officials are warning that second, and even third, waves of the pandemic are likely in the coming months and years. Women are 10 times more likely than men to take time off of work to care for a sick family member, and as we’ve learned, the burden of home-schooling if schools were to again shut down, remain largely with women. Therefore, women will likely suffer from multiple disruptions to their careers in the short- to medium- term, exacerbating the barriers they already face to get ahead in the workplace. In fact, a study done in the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola outbreakshowed that men’s income recovered to their pre-outbreak levels faster than women’s – an omen for what’s to come in the aftermath of the current pandemic.

All that said, there are opportunities for women in the post-pandemic world as well. Pre-pandemic, it is estimated that only 10% of the workforce had the flexibility to work from home and while many workers want to return to the office, over half of surveyed workers want to have the ability to work from home at least one day a week post-pandemic. Companies that may have been reluctant to accommodate such requests previously may now be in a position to do so, giving workers who struggle with work-life balance some relief. Obviously flexible work arrangements will benefit both men and women in achieving work-life balance, but women will be the primary beneficiaries of the cultural shift around flexible work, where people demanding work-life balance will not be perceived in a negative light. The hope is that in the long run, this cultural shift can help more women who want out of the “mommy track” and into leadership roles.

We have also seen the world sit up and take notice of the kind of invisible work that women, particularly racialized and immigrant women, toil at for a pittance: personal support workers, retail workers, cleaners, and so on. Every corporation with a marketing budget has publicly thanked these workers with radio ads and social media posts, but it remains to be seen whether this lip service will result in greater respect and better working conditions in the medium term. This will depend on our society’s ability and willingness to support these workers to get continued visibility and representation with corporate leaders, whether that’s through unions or other collective actions, and the success of advocacy efforts for better government policies...

The pandemic has exposed a lot of the cracks our society has long tried to hide in its treatment of, and attitudes towards, women and the work they do. It has also demonstrated in real terms the necessity of this work and their contributions. We are at an inflection point where we can choose to finally acknowledge that women have long subsidized the current economic structure and that any “new normal” will need to assign value to these fundamental economic activities and provide a voice to the women who carry out these activities.

June Ip (she/her) is a marketing executive and educator with a background in political economy and social justice.

Image by @jackofallstreets