Chapter 7. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gender Gap and vice versa. What question to ask?
Updated: Jan 9, 2021
To get a sense of how the current crisis has been impacting the gender gap, let's take a closer look at two of its main sources: women’s labour force participation and the division of unpaid labour within the household. The results are not reassuring.
The increase in unemployment: why is this time different? Men's employment has usually been more sensitive to business cycle fluctuations than women’s, including crisis periods such as the Global Financial Crisis. However, this time occupations mainly covered by women have been suffering more. Indeed, research shows that they are less adaptable to telecommute - 22% against 28% of men's - and they are less critical - 17% against 24% of men's - meaning that they are less likely to be protected from unemployment. Alon et al. (2020) analyse this exogenous and asymmetric shock very well. The real novelty of the current crisis is definitely the jeopardized provision of childcare that forced families to reorganize their resources. This childcare shock is exogenous as well, but it is asymmetric in a way that critically depends on parents’ choices regarding care task allocation within the household. The next paragraph discusses the outcome of the bargaining process over the allocation of tasks at home between partners conditional on their employment status. However, it is reasonable to assume that the employment status is itself an outcome of the aforementioned bargaining process. Sevilla and Smith (2020) suggest that "where there was an element of choice, women may have been more likely to stop working" to compensate for the lack of childcare. If true, this fact suggests that the pre-crisis gender bias/gap mechanism has amplified the decrease in female labour force participation in response to the pandemic. Why do women sacrifice more than men? Are they expected to do so? Do they earn less than their spouse, making their sacrifice more convenient for the household than their partner’s does? All answers seem to have some structural patriarchal flavour.
The division of tasks at home. Now we have more women at home and more housework to do, particularly childcare. Andrew et al. (2020) analyse the time use of heterosexual couples during the lockdown in England. Mothers are more likely to spend more time in childcare and housework than their partners. “Gender differences in the allocation of domestic work cannot be straightforwardly explained by gender differences in employment rates or earnings. Very large gender asymmetries emerge when one partner has stopped working for pay during the crisis: mothers who have stopped working for pay do far more domestic work than fathers in the equivalent situation do.” Sevilla and Smith (2020) analyses the supply and demand of childcare. They find that women bear most of the burden (63%) while men's participation is sensitive to their employment status, that is, they only step in when they have more free time. You can find a short presentation followed by a discussion of the paper below. While these results are very preliminary, the question of whether these effects are here to stay remains valid.
Short-run versus long-run effects. What will COVID-19's legacy on the gender gap be? On the one hand, women’s comparative advantage on childcare and housework is very likely to increase - they are investing ever more time in these tasks - making it more difficult to reverse the trend afterwards. Even when they keep their job, women benefit from only one hour of uninterrupted work against an average of 3h for their male counterpart. This leads to a drop in productivity of paid work, reinforcing the previous argument of comparative advantage. On the other hand, the overall increase in men’s participation in childcare may trigger, or possibly accelerate, a cultural change in social norms that accepts fathers spending more time with their children and/or a change in their preferences.
What is the impact of gender on COVID-19?“Is there a significant and systematic difference in COVID-19 cases and deaths in countries led by a woman versus that of a man? Yes. 19 out of 194 leaders are female”, concludes the research by Garikipati and Kambhampati (2020). They provide a great discussion on how women’s leadership is different from men’s, touching upon risk aversion and overconfidence. For an extensive discussion on this topic, refer to our Chapter 2. Leadership and glass ceiling in economics.
Is this a helpful question to ask? Probably not. In our Chapter 4. Policy options: what works and what doesn't, we discussed an interesting paper from Besley et al. (2017) about “Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man”. The authors conclude that “this quota raised the competence of male politicians where it raised female representation the most. We argue that resignation of mediocre male leaders was a key driver of this effect“. In other words, are female leaders simply better or should we learn to generally allocate talent better? Taken together, these papers suggest that yes, Garikipati and Kambhampati (2020) are observing a gender effect of country leaders on the pandemic management, but the channel might not be the one they highlight. Rather, the selection of women into leadership is too harsh and only very extraordinary ones succeed. There are also very extraordinary men out there, but their performances are averaged with those of less talented ones, which crowd out better women leaders.
What is the right question then? Let's go back to Bertrand (2020): "Finally, it is tempting to say, and many have, that the world would be a kinder—and, in the long-run, better—place if more women were in charge, with less hate, less greed, and/or more sustainable policies. While I find it hard not to sympathize with this argument, I also fear that it is ultimately counterproductive, as it takes us back to the same stereotypical thinking trap. Instead, we should strive for a better allocation of talent in society, whether that talent is male or female.” Talent belongs to all genders and sexual orientations. Everyone should be empowered to take part in the societal task allocation process. You can read more about this in our Chapter 5. Is gendered behavior only trained behavior?
Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Julia Cajal Grossi who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private.
Alison Andrew , Sarah Cattan, Monica Costa Dias, Christine Farquharson, Lucy Kraftman, Sonya Krutikova, Angus Phimister & Almudena Sevilla (23 July 2020). The gendered division of paid and domestic work under lockdown. Covid Economics, Vetted and Real Time Papers, Issue 39. https://cepr.org/content/covid-economics-vetted-and-real-time-papers-0
Almudena Sevilla and Sarah Smith (28 May 2020). Baby steps: The gender division of childcare during the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid Economics, Vetted and Real Time Papers, Issue 23. https://cepr.org/content/covid-economics-vetted-and-real-time-papers-0
Alon, Titan M., et al. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. w26947. http://tertilt.vwl.uni-mannheim.de/research/Alon_Doepke_Olmstead-Rumsey_Tertilt_COVID_2020.pdf
Bertrand, Marianne (2020). Gender in the Twenty-First Century. AEA Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 110. https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/pandp.20201126.
Besley, Timothy, et al. (2017). Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden. American Economic Review 107(8)
Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati (5 June 2020). Leading the fight against the pandemic: Does gender ‘really’ matter? Covid Economics, Vetted and Real Time Papers, Issue 26. https://cepr.org/content/covid-economics-vetted-and-real-time-papers-0