Why the gendered political economy of COVID-19 matters

While the Chancellor’s injection of money into the economy is welcome, it highlights just how undervalued ‘women’s work’ still is in our societies

Feminist political economists have long argued that, in times of crisis, the conventional wisdom underpinning our political economy comes into sharp view, particularly in terms of exposing the ‘subsidy’ provided by ‘unvalued’ and ‘undervalued’ work. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the unvalued, unpaid family care work, such as looking after children and the elderly, providing emotional support, and increased food preparation, as well as our reliance upon vital voluntary work in the community, as reflected in the appearance of Mutual Aid groups, the rising workload of food banks etc. It has also highlighted the undervalued, low-paid work that is essential to keeping our economies and societies running: the labour of health and social care workers, delivery drivers, and those toiling in the food production and retail sectors who are being praised as ‘unsung heroes’.

Despite the involvement of both women and men, a far higher proportion of this work is still undertaken by women. We must also acknowledge the distinctive gendered dynamics that drive the undervaluing of what are seen to be ‘feminine’ areas of the economy – in particular, health and social care, education and childcare, and the food service sector. The connection between women’s unvalued and unpaid care work, and the undervaluing and underpaying of key essential worker roles cannot be underplayed.

As Marilyn Waring has been telling us since the 1980s, women’s unpaid work (housework, cooking, looking after children, the sick and elderly) is ‘uncounted’ in national economic models and GDP figures. By not accounting for this labour in our analyses of the political economy, we are therefore only telling half the story. National economies are predicated on – and extract value from – the contribution of this unpaid ‘social reproductive’ labour, which includes all of the physical and emotional exertion necessary for producing and caring for humans, and thereby reproducing the labour force. Added to this is the broader reliance on low-paid and undervalued work that is usually denigrated as ‘unskilled’, but is now recognised as ‘key’ and ‘essential’. Not only do the local and global economy fundamentally rely on this, but many ‘key workers’ have been propelled into extra care work – both as parents and for parents and other relatives – as a result of Covid-19, while also juggling underpaid jobs or even suffering the loss of them. They therefore pay the costs of the crisis multiple times over.

In the current epidemic, school closures impact on both women and men, but it is often worse for women because they are often in lower paid, flexible work and already the primary (unpaid) caregivers. They are also generally the (underpaid) care-workers looking after the elderly and sick, comprising a large proportion of NHS frontline and care home staff. As the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has highlighted, women are also more likely to be in low income groups, who are at higher risk of defaulting on rent payments and mortgages. Moreover, as Katerina Mantouvalou argues, policy responses to the epidemic also weigh heavily on women, with orders to stay home putting them at higher risk of domestic violence, school and nursery closures increasing vulnerability to poverty (especially for lone mothers), and the move to home-working putting mothers of school-age children and pregnant women at a higher risk of discrimination and redundancy (while also having to pay the personal, emotional and other costs of caring for and educating those children).

A significant proportion of ‘key worker’ roles are also undertaken by women. The pictures of the carers who left their families to move into a Sheffield dementia home to shield residents vividly demonstrate how so many on the frontline are women. As the WBG has further noted, ‘women are at the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19’. Based on calculations published by Autonomy, of the 3 million-plus people in jobs with a ‘high risk’ of exposure, 77 per cent are women. Women are also more highly represented in the lowerpaid occupations within this category. In the UK, 9 in 10 nurses are female, as are 8 in 10 care workers, home carers, and nursing auxiliaries or assistants. Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and migrant women are overrepresented in many of these occupations too. These jobs are already low paid, but in the UK women still earn even less than their male counterparts.

If these workers are ‘key’ and ‘essential’, why is their labour so undervalued in ‘normal’ times? In the case of caring, as Chris Dillow points out, work done by women and immigrants has not only ‘long been stigmatized, devalued and regarded as “unskilled”’ but, crucially, they have ‘a lack of outside options and hence of bargaining power’. The (apparently) newly discovered importance of this type of work reveals how much society is reliant upon it and how undervalued and poorly remunerated it is. As Ian Dunt suggests, the very idea of key workers challenges traditional notions of what constitutes value in capitalist economies.

Feminists, though, go further than this monetary focus. Rai, Hoskyns and Thomas argue that social reproductive work causes ‘depletion’ at three levels: individual (mentally, physically, economically and socially); household (including other sites such as elderly care homes); and community (as more people move into work). Depletion intensifies when the outflow of effort is not met by an inflow of measures (including money) that help to sustain the health and well-being of those who provide it. As Meg Luxton argues, it is women who often pick up ‘the slack’ during crises, taking on more of the socially reproductive work in the economy and stepping in where social and care services are lacking. Our health and social care sectors are populated by underpaid and overworked care workers, but they pay twice: once with their under-remunerated labour, and again through the depletion process – or what feminists refer to as the ‘double burden’.

As many commentators have suggested (here, here and here), austerity has seen the withdrawal of support where we need it most. Practically, this been caused by restructuring, privatisation and successive waves of cuts to key services, such as the NHS, social care and Universal Credit (which, until now, has been frozen for five years). However, as Rishi Sunak’s cash injections have shown, state support is necessary, possible and welcome. Yet even these measures highlight huge inequities. As Sarah O’Connor noted in the Financial Times, by offering to pay up to 80 per cent of absent employees’ wages (up to £2500 a month), the Chancellor is giving more ‘to some people to sit at home… than others who are being paid to do essential work’, and ‘at personal risk to their own health’.

A feminist political economy analysis shows that care needs to come first. Unpaid and undervalued labour must be ‘counted’ and ‘valued’. This includes structural transformation in how care work is shared out, the introduction of remuneration for this work, increased state support and public investment in vital services, higher pay for insecure and frontline workers (along with improved rights, job security and access to sick pay etc.), better social security and safety nets, and measurement and recognition of the contribution of this work to both our national economies and the essential well-being of our societies.