No Second-guessing: COVID-19 is Worsening Gender Inequality in Employment
By: Lisar Morina, Vladimir Zivkovic
‘I worked at a private firm in the finance sector for more than 7 years where I spent many hours of passionate work that included overtime and weekend work,’ says a young woman in her 30s from Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. She is a mother of three children, worried all the time more about them than working hard to support her family. Yet losing her job was the last thing that she had thought would happen to her. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic fall hardest on the most vulnerable, including women and the youth.
While there’s no data to fully quantify the impact of the pandemic on women, local organizations such as Kosovo Women's Network (KWN)—that have provided legal assistance before and during the pandemic to women discriminated against in the workplace—reported that many women lost their jobs and sought help from KWN as a result of unlawful termination of contracts.
Eight months into its outbreak, the COVID-19 is still sending shockwaves all over the world. Kosovo has been scrambling to curb the spread of the disease, but the damage has already been done: a 5% reduction in the GDP, layoffs, downsizing, business interruptions, and mass unemployment.
The closure of schools and childcare services has worsened the situation for women, affecting their employment prospects. The new government has decided to open the economy in May has left childcare services closed. At least 2,000 women work in private childcare services in Kosovo.
More inequalities, leading to losing hope
Gender equality benefits the economy and society as a whole. For example, eliminating barriers to women’s employment and addressing the gender gap can be good for economic growth. Women’s participation in leadership roles improves business performance. However, the COVID-19 crisis is laying bare the inequality that exists in the labor market and beyond.
According to McKinsey & Company’s estimates, globally, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs, and even though women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of job losses. Women are disproportionately employed in industries that COVID-19 has affected most in 2020.
‘The pandemic has affected my life in the worst way possible,’ says a young Kosovar journalist in her 20s. ‘I lost my job as a newspaper journalist/editor in March. That happened because all the newspapers in Kosovo were closed. In my previous job, around 30 people were laid off.’
She was born and raised in Kosovo. She says that she has never thought of leaving the country until now even though ‘half of her generation has already left’. But her experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how hard it is making a living here, especially for women.
The Kosovo Government Package for Economic Recovery of Kosovo stresses the importance of supporting women in employment, but there are no specific measures in place that clarify how this will be achieved. More needs to be done to support and promote initiatives that support women in networking, lobbying and advocacy, awareness, and social activism.
Evidence in policymaking practices may also improve employment opportunities for women by taking specific measures such as keeping flexible working hours, increasing support services, and subsidizing salaries in sectors that were most hit by the pandemic.
Writing about the impacts of the pandemic in Eastern Europe, Zenebe Uraguchi argues that ‘well before the Covid-19 crisis, women and young people made up the largest number of the unemployed. They faced with very limited opportunities for employment and career development for a long time. Now, among those who managed to get employment, women and younger workers are often the first to have their hours cut or be laid off.’
A new ‘lockdown generation’ with long boiling grievances is increasingly losing hope…
Did some industries sprout as the others scrambled to cope with the repercussions?
Although most industries felt the economic shock of the pandemic, there were a few that saw demand for products and services increase. Industries like e-commerce, IT, or online streaming services all experienced growth. But other industries saw itself sprouting: the pharmaceutical industry. In Kosovo, masks, gloves, and disinfectants, vitamins, and immune-boosting supplements were at the top of the buyers' list, creating huge queues in front of pharmacies.
The pharmaceutical industry in Kosovo saw demand greatly increase, and quickly found itself in need of new employees. In Gracanica, a small town in Kosovo mostly populated by ethnic Serbs, we talked with Dragana Slavic, a nurse by profession, who by a fortuitous chain of events, found herself gaining employment at a time when most people were losing their jobs.
When the pandemic began, Dragana was working as a pediatric nurse at the Clinical Hospital Center in Gracanica, but her contract was about to expire soon. Searching for other possible opportunities, Dragana found out about the Gracanica Innovation Centre (GIC), a non-formal training center whose establishment and sustainability model the EYE project supported. Firstly, she applied and attended a web design course offered at GIC premises, and on that occasion expressed her interest in working in the organization. She became a member of GIC during the pandemic, as the founders of GIC recognized her enthusiasm.
Around April, as a prompt response to the Covid-19 pandemic, GIC shifted its focus on helping those on the frontlines who were battling the pandemic. ‘We started making visors and donating them to people in the frontlines who were most at risk of contracting COVID-19,’ says Dragana.
One day as Dragana and the GIC team were traveling around Gracanica to donate visors, Dragana visited a local pharmacy and found that the pharmacy was looking to employ new people. ‘It was accidental, and it was a great opportunity to stay in the field of healthcare, which is my primary profession,” recalls Dragana. She expects to find a job so quickly, as she was aware of the difficult situation in the labor market. She liked her job and has decided to receive additional education and training in the field of pharmacy.
Even after she got employed, Dragana did not cease her volunteerism to contribute to society. Every day after work, she still takes the time to go to the GIC premises and help print and donate visors to those most in need.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved the vulnerability of people and economic systems. It has brought about additional layers of complexity to already fragile contexts. For women, the pandemic has been a crisis within a crisis. It’s more than a health problem and the impacts won’t disappear sooner once a vaccine has been rolled out.
For faster and deeper results, we need to carefully understand and consistently challenge the dynamics of power at different levels. There’s no doubt that gender and power are fundamentally linked. The most likely and indeed justified response to the pandemic is saving lives and supporting short-term humanitarian efforts. Many ad hoc measures are required to address the economic and social fallouts from the pandemic. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective.