The Covid gender gap
Women suffered a large and disproportionate effect in the labour market as a result of the hard lockdown, but they’ve also been slower to recover
With the release of the final wave of the Nids-Cram survey, we can take stock of how the Covid crisis has affected gender inequality one year on. The results are not encouraging.
Women suffered a large and disproportionate effect in the labour market as a result of the hard lockdown, but they’ve also been slower to recover. In March 2021, when the country was in its least restrictive lockdown, men’s employment and working hours were back to pre-Covid levels. Women’s employment was still down 8% against February 2020, and their working hours were down an average 6% (two hours a week).
So while there was a recovery in employment, it has been slower (and remains incomplete) for women. Covid has increased gender inequality in the labour market.
An important factor to consider is the gender split in job types. Women are more likely to be in the sectors hardest hit by the crisis. They are also in more precarious employment relationships, so it is easier for employers to reduce their employment or working hours when lockdown restrictions bite. This highlights the inequality that stems from job segregation and shows that policy to open opportunities for women in "male" sectors, and in more stable employment, needs to take centre stage.
Another likely reason for the uneven effect in the labour market is the uneven impact in the home. The Nids-Cram data shows that the burden of school closures has fallen disproportionately on women: twice as many women as men said child-care responsibilities during the lockdown affected their work prospects. Any serious attempts to close gender gaps in the labour market will need to address this inequality in the home.
An important finding is that even though women account for most of the unemployed and Covid-related job losses, they received the least state income support targeting unemployed and furloughed workers. Our data shows that only about a third of the recipients of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) temporary employer/employee relief scheme (Ters) and the special relief of distress (SRD) grant were women.
That fewer women received Ters benefits is because they are less likely to be (formally) employed and registered for UIF. However, fewer women received the SRD grant because it could not be paid concurrently with another grant, such as for child support. So unemployed women were penalised if they were also the main caregiver to a child.
If the SRD grant is reintroduced in future, this issue will need to be urgently revisited.
SA is well into its third, brutal wave of Covid, with tighter restrictions progressively reimposed since late May. But all state income support measures have been discontinued, with seemingly no intention to reintroduce them — despite the effect the new restrictions will undoubtedly have on employment. And, if past evidence is anything to go by, especially on the jobs of women.
The lack of additional income support when the pandemic is still raging is deeply worrying. Measures need to be reintroduced with urgency to help stave off the most devastating effects of this crisis.
Daniela Casale is with the Wits University school of economics & finance; Debra Shepherd is a member of Stellenbosch University’s department of economics
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