In the 2008 recession men were disproportionately affected by job losses, but the Covid-19 pandemic has hit women more severely, with the crisis now frequently referred to as a "she-cession".

One of the main reasons for this is that women and men continue to be concentrated in different parts of the economy, and many of the hardest-hit sectors have been those that typically employ large numbers of women (tourism and hospitality, retail trade, personal care, domestic and child-care services).

Another reason for the disproportionate effect on women has been the concurrent crisis in child care as a result of school closures. Given that women were more likely to care for children pre-Covid, it is not surprising that they have borne the brunt of additional (unpaid) care work at home.

Data from the first wave of the Nids-Cram survey showed women in SA were especially hard-hit by the crisis during the first month of the lockdown. Though women accounted for less than half (47%) of employment in February, they accounted for 2-million, or two-thirds (67%), of the 3-million net job losses that were recorded between February and April.

In addition, women were found to have taken on more of the extra child-care work in April. This was because women in SA are much more likely than men to be living with children. But even among male and female respondents living with children, women reported spending more hours on extra child care than men.

The release of Nids-Cram wave 2 provides the opportunity to track how women have fared as the economy started to reopen.

Unemployed women are effectively being penalised if they are also the main caregivers to children

The "good" news is that, in the labour market at least, their situation relative to men didn’t deteriorate with the move from level 5 to level 3 of lockdown. There was hardly any difference in the net jobs recorded between April and June, and if anything, women may have gained a bit relative to men.

Nonetheless, women remain well behind men in reaching their pre-Covid employment levels. Women’s employment was still down 20% in June against February, while men’s was down 13% (see graph).

In total, women accounted for 58% of the net job losses that occurred between February and June.

A worrying finding is that even though women were overrepresented among the job losses, they were underrepresented in the income support received in June. Only 41% of the beneficiaries of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) or the UIF temporary employer/employee relief scheme, and 34% of those who had been paid the new Covid-19 social relief of distress grant (SRDG), were women.

It is likely that fewer women received the SRDG because it can’t be held concurrently with another social grant, such as the child support grant.

It means unemployed women are effectively being penalised if they are also the main caregivers to children, raising questions about the fairness of SA’s social protection system.

The time-use data collected in wave 2 suggests men benefited more from the return of some school grades and child-care services in June.

That many men were also spending more time on child care during the first phase of the lockdown has led a number of people to ask if this might be a transformative moment for society. This unprecedented "social experiment" within households might lead to a longer-term redistribution of care work if men form new attachments with their children or become more accustomed to child care.

What it means:

In SA, women were much harder hit by Covid than men

The study’s results cast doubt on this idea: men seem to be reverting to pre-Covid child-care levels faster than women as the economy reopens.

This reflects in the responses individuals gave when asked how child care during the lockdown had affected them. Twice as many women as men (about 3.4-million vs 1.7-million) said child care negatively affected their ability to work, to work the same hours as before lockdown, or to search for work.

From the evidence we have so far, the pandemic and ongoing lockdown are having a much more severe effect on women and their prospects in the labour market. This threatens to reverse some of the (slow) gains towards gender equality over the past 25 years in SA.

As we regrow our economy, there needs to be a focus on helping women regain their jobs. Until then, women need to be provided with income support to help compensate for the haemorrhaging in the labour market.

*Casale is an associate professor in the school of economics & finance at Wits University; Shepherd is a senior lecturer in the economics department at Stellenbosch University

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