We need to use the pandemic to finally get gender equality right


As long as women have been in the workforce, many have worked a “double shift” – performing a full-time job, then coming home and doing the vast majority of childcare and household tasks. According to research published by The New York Times, if women worldwide were compensated for this unpaid labour, they would have earned $10.9 trillion (£8.3 trillion) in 2019. In 2021, thanks to the pandemic, we will understand in a concrete way that this situation has to change.
According to research by Lean In, the organisation that I founded, when the pandemic began, the typical woman in the US working full time with a partner and children saw her daily responsibilities skyrocket. Suddenly, she was doing an average of three or more hours of household work, five or more hours of childcare and homeschooling, and an hour and a half caring for elderly or sick relatives – every day. And that’s before she even began her professional work for the day. It wasn’t a double shift anymore. It was a double-double shift.


Of course, the pandemic has forced men to do more, too. However, on average, working women with families were doing more than 20 hours of additional domestic labour every week than men. That adds up to half a full-time job.
Meanwhile, across the world, millions of women have careers in industries on the frontlines of the Covid-19 response, such as healthcare, pharmacy, food and housekeeping. Women make up two-thirds of the global health workforce, for example, and 85 per cent of nurses and midwives. Across OECD countries, they also account for 90 per cent of long-term care workers. Doing their job suddenly meant risking not just their health, but their families’ health too.
On top of this, the pandemic has triggered a recession, with redundancies and furloughs that have sharply affected women. Women are also disproportionately represented in professions that have been affected by lockdown and social distancing measures, in sectors such as retail, air transport, food-and-beverage services and accommodation services. The impact has been so notable that it has been coined a “she-cession” by C Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the US, Black women in particular have suffered; they are nearly twice as likely as white men to have lost a job or had their hours or pay cut.
Some countries have been able to safely open schools, childcare centres and workplaces, making life more manageable for working mothers. In others, reopening has been more difficult. The result is an ongoing economic and health catastrophe for women, who are pushing themselves to the brink day after day. It’s not sustainable.


In 2021, we will have the chance to reflect on how the pandemic has exposed the unequal burdens women carry. Families, employers and policymakers will at last have to grapple with hard questions that should have been answered long ago. How should we value the invisible labour women do for families every day? Can we finally get rid of the outdated notion that caring for children and running a household are inherently “women’s work”?
How can employers do a better job of supporting women – and particularly women of colour, who often receive less support and fewer opportunities at work? What will it take to close the gender and racial pay gaps once and for all? What government policies would make a real difference for women and families?
Since the pandemic began, I’ve heard from women who are having conversations with their husbands for the first time about the division of labour at home, and from employers who are striving to be as flexible and accommodating toward working parents as possible. That gives me hope that real change will come out of this difficult time.


There’s an expression in politics: never let a good crisis go to waste. The crisis of Covid-19 is giving us a chance to make our homes and workplaces fairer for women and everyone. In 2021, we will see that we can’t let this opportunity pass us by.
Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook and the founder of LeanIn.org

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