Who would have believed that more than two years on we would still be dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic? Or its effects, at any rate. And yet here we are, still grappling with the changes it has brought, not only for the short term, but the long term as well. The fact is the pandemic has affected how women, especially, are living now and how we will live in years to come because it has significantly impacted everything from wealth creation and accumulation, home ownership, and government policies to scientific discoveries and how they will affect our lives.
The shecession is an actual thing
One of the conversations the pandemic has immediately spawned is its effect on women in the labour force. In fact, the term "shecession", a portmanteau of the words "she" and "recession", has been coined to refer to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women's participation in the workforce and, I would add, generally speaking, on their finances.
A US Census Bureau reports that in the first few weeks of the pandemic, 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children took leave, lost their job, or simply left the job market entirely. In the Caribbean, meanwhile, per an International Finance Corporation finding, with only 52 per cent of women participating in the region's labour market (versus 77 per cent of men) pre-pandemic, the pandemic has worsened gender inequalities. This has threatened a setback to the baby steps that were being taken in the right direction towards women's empowerment in the workforce prior to 2020.
How you doin'? No, really.
Jamaican women, who have always shown resilience and determination in working through crises, regardless of socioeconomic classification, have been experiencing unprecedented financial hardship, the result of pandemic-induced inflation and subsequent cost of living. There's anecdotal evidence of this every day.
And it's not just women from the working and lower classes who are being impacted. Increasingly, middle-class women are anxious about mounting credit card debt, as it's becoming increasingly difficult for ends to meet, the way they did pre-pandemic. Even if they try to cut back, they will admit to not having a lot of wiggle room in finding things to cut back on. Not to mention things like saving, let alone building an emergency fund, planning for home ownership, and even retirement. Not when their family's grocery bill, for example, has practically almost doubled while their salaries remain the same. Not when it's becoming increasingly difficult to afford childcare services, whether by domestic help or otherwise. And let's not forget, too, many women also take care of old and infirm parents. The financial and emotional toll can be unimaginable.
More equitable parental leave is a start
The truth is there is an ongoing shock to female employment with or without crises like a pandemic to exacerbate it, and steps to correct this narrative need to be made. This is why the introduction of paternity leave is one such step in this direction. A baby step, mind you. It's no magic wand, and the importance may not be immediately obvious. But among the things that paternity leave seeks to do is not only to take the burden of childcare off women but also, in so doing, to promote a more equitable workforce and inculcate a mindset that women are not second-class citizens because of their unique ability to give birth.
The fact is, gender inequalities in caregiving have been shown to be one of the many contributing reasons for gender inequalities in the workplace. If the burden of child care falls squarely on the backs of women, think about where this leads: slower career progression, maybe even career downgrading, or worst-case, women being sidelined or off-ramped completely simply because they have families. Mothers, the statistics show, take twice as much parental leave as fathers who get the plum promotions and hence the pay raises from which they are able to more easily build wealth. Case in point: Only about 37 per cent of investors in the Jamaica Stock Market are women.
It's for these reasons that so many career-oriented women of child-bearing age opt not to start, or postpone starting families; even before the pandemic, they realised there was a trade-off between being stuck in the slow lane professionally and raising children.
The bottom line
The pandemic didn't cause gender inequalities; it worsened them. More than ever before, women need a shock absorption cushion for when the economy struggles as it has for the past two years. Locally, the recent developments concerning paternity leave are a step towards engendering a new take on long-held, antiquated societal beliefs that one-half of the population should bear the brunt of the financial and emotional fallout simply because of their gender.
If you're a woman who is fairly comfortable, moneywise, gender equity in the workplace should nevertheless be a concern of yours and you should, wherever possible, use your platform to agitate for change for other women. For wasn't it Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai who said: "We cannot succeed when half of us are held back."