The corona crisis from a gender perspective: Opening up a debate

Analysen Debatten Un/Gleichheiten

Swiss Association for Gender Studies (SAGS) Mai 2020

COVID-19 has strongly gendered effects. This entry offers an overview of some of these effects and their possible short- and long-term consequences. This overview is far from being exhaustive, but rather serves as a starting point for a broader debate among a diverse audience and as a plea for research into the issues raised here.

An array of items in white and blue colors: There is toilet paper, a yellow measuring tape, blue disinfectant, a black latex glove, a thermometer, crumpled up tissues and a black latex glove.

Image: Gender Campus

1. The need for an intersectional perspective on the gendered consequences of the pandemic

The gendered consequences of the pandemic need to be addressed through an intersectional perspective, analysing how gender intersects with other categories, like social class, sexuality, race, migration and ethnicity. The situation of women – but also of men and non-binary people – and hence how they are affected by the pandemic are a result of this intersectionality. Furthermore, arguing that gender is performed and not just a given, we might ask how gender is configured in new ways as a result of the pandemic.

2. Gender equality under strain and/or opening up spaces for new gender configurations

The pandemic has the potential to reinforce traditional gendered patterns that go against gender equality. There are indications (see below) that the (partial) progress Switzerland and other countries have made regarding gender equality is currently under strain. At the same time, the pandemic has the potential to make life-sustaining work and professions that are mostly carried out by women more visible. Furthermore, this crisis might also open up new spaces for negations and transformations of gender issues. We here make a plea for detailed research into these – apparently contradictory – dynamics, as these transformations will most probably have long-term effects.

3. Gendered labour markets/work arrangements and likely consequences

In many parts of the world, including Switzerland, women are often in a more precarious economic situation: they are statistically overrepresented in lesser paid, insecure, informal, atypical (work on demand, part-time employment) or unpaid work. They save less and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector (e.g. domestic work) and in sectors not covered by collective agreements. They have less access to social benefits and are the majority of single-parent households. Women are also overrepresented in low-paid or unpaid work in the care, retail, and cleaning sectors, where a significant amount of overtime is currently being worked.

  • It is therefore of the utmost importance to consider the gendered implications of pandemic-related economic-compensation strategies. Economic-compensation strategies must take into account the economic value of these feminised fields of work and non-paid labour. Strategies need to be developed that support this non- and lesser paid work and the women who, because of the crisis, risk falling into poverty or financial dependence.
  • The pandemic has been a turning point in the valuation of women’s labour, at least in terms of symbolic recognition. As the pandemic is clearly demonstrating, feminised areas of work – nursing, caring, retail – are crucial to the functioning of society: the recently introduced German-language term "Systemrelevante Berufe" (“system-relevant workers”, i.e. key or essential workers) illustrates this tendency. As well, workers in these jobs are at a disproportionally high risk of infection. Visions need to be developed for how society can better recognise these workers’ importance economically, and not just symbolically: salaries in these fields do not correspond to their social importance and need to be increased.
  • We see a need for a detailed analysis of the situation across economic sectors and employment statuses.

4. Impact of the pandemic on gendered family and household arrangements

The pandemic undoubtedly has an effect on gendered family and household arrangements. During (soft or hard) lockdowns, such arrangements need to be renegotiated, particularly if children are involved. The crisis seems to have reinforced traditional unequal gendered patterns. At the same time, however, there are also indications that new, less gendered and less unequal arrangements could emerge from this crisis. We recommend studies on these issues, as these changes might be long lasting.

  • There is a risk that the breadwinner model is currently being reinforced: in a crisis situation, established gendered representations can gain ground, as we know from all over the world.
  • There appears to be a feminisation of responsibilities in home-office situations: home-schooling responsibilities might fall more often on mothers than fathers, which in turn reinforces the pressure on women to put aside their professional careers, particularly because the “normal structures” – like crèches and schools – are closed, and in some cases because grandparents were part of the family arrangements.
  • “Unconventional” relationships and family models are under pressure. These relationships and models are often not recognised or addressed, and it is difficult to implement the Federal Office of Public Health’s (FOPH) guidelines in regard to them (divorced couples, patchwork families, multi-local and transnational families, polyamory, single households, queer families).
  • The return to work for everybody will require reliable public childcare, which is currently underfunded.
  • These factors have several consequences. In academia, for example, mothers might be disadvantaged in the long term – in terms of publications, research-project submissions and so on – if they are spending more of their time on childcare and home schooling during the crisis than their male colleagues.

5. Gendered effects on public representation and power

There is significant evidence that in times of crisis political solutions are based less on participation than on strong leadership and executive power. That goes together with the tendency to rely on technical expertise, which, as we are currently witnessing, is mostly dominated by mainstream male experts. The pandemic risks reinforcing the unequal distribution of power between men and women.

  • Measures are needed to reinforce the integration of the knowledge, experiences and expertise of women and other marginalised groups in political and social organisations, as well as in the media and other public realms.

6. A specific focus on migrant workers as particularly vulnerable

Across the globe, including in Switzerland, many migrant women work as informal care or domestic workers, but also in many other fields. As a result, they are at higher risk of infection (as it is difficult to implement social-distancing measures in these fields), but also of economic vulnerability. Here is a partial list of especially vulnerable sectors:

  • Sex workers: this sector includes a large number of (sometimes illegalised) migrant women. These individuals are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, in terms of both infection and economic vulnerability (as they often do not have access to social benefits).
  • Illegalised (female) migrant workers: measures are needed to grant migrant workers access to social benefits. Portugal has legalised undocumented migrants during the pandemic for this reason (and Italy is considering doing so); there might be other solutions.
  • Many people have been pushed into unemployment, as a result of which they need to apply for welfare support or become indebted. These financial and social effects can have concrete legal consequences for (women) migrants. Their residence permits and naturalisation applications are often dependent on their being employed, and they may not be able to continue sending remittances to their families.
  • Attempts to reach affected migrant women have to be strengthened. For example, information should be distributed in several languages and through an array of media and multiplicators, help desks, consultations and so on. As well, existing organisations such as victim-support services, migrant/asylum health centres and specialised NGOs should be strengthened and diversified.
  • There is a need to transnationally address the effects of current care chains. Care workers are lured from their home countries in the East and South, where the shortage of care workers might be felt especially acutely during the pandemic.

7. Effects on LGBTI people

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people may be particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic: these individuals regularly experience stigma and discrimination in health services, creating disparities in access, quality and availability of healthcare. Young LGBTI people who experience violence and rejection in their families might suffer especially under the current lockdown. Those with compromised immune systems, including some individuals with HIV/AIDS, face a greater risk from COVID-19.

8. Increase in gender-based violence

Domestic violence has increased worldwide during the pandemic. The lockdown requires people to stay at home to protect themselves and others from the virus. However, it is precisely this protective measure that increases the risk of domestic violence, the majority of which affects women and children. Attempts to address this issue need to take women in the asylum system into account as well.

9. Migration, nationalism and border closures

Border closures in Europe jeopardise the lives of the most vulnerable, including migrants who find themselves unable to return to the countries where they are supposed to study, work or care for their families, which can increase their economic vulnerability significantly. As well, migrants who are locked down in their host countries may be deprived of income they need to support their families abroad. Many of these migrants are women.

We are witnessing a strong culturalisation and racialisation of the pandemic. Most obviously, the virus is sometimes framed as “foreign”. But culturalisation is also occurring when high fatality rates (often unsoundly calculated) in risk areas are presented as resulting from differences in “culture” (instead of socio-economic conditions and the ability to conduct proper social distancing, for example). Such racialisation, often based on gendered cultural stereotypes, can result in explicit racism, which is often gendered. These trends have been reported for many parts of the world, and they deserve to be studied in detail.

On May 16, the Swiss National Science Task Force COVID-19 has released a policy brief that combines these recommendations with inputs from other expert groups: ELSI Report "Gender Aspects of COVID19 and pandemic response"


12. Mai 2020


Swiss Association for Gender Studies (SAGS)