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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Life Sciences - Gender And Globalisation

Prof. Dr. Christine Bauhardt

 

Main areas of research: Societal relationships to nature and gender, feminist economic critique, migration and urban development

 


 

Corona and Care - Feminist thoughts in a bleak time

 

I never thought I would be writing an article in an era which confirms the empirical data that feminist economists have always being putting forward: the bedrock of economic activity is to take care of people and their immediate needs. Only cynics would request proof of what is now crystal clear to everyone in the unfolding of the corona virus pandemic.

Yes, there are a great number of studies, especially international time-use surveys, about the responsibilities and vital care work taken on by women in both the labor market and in the household. These long-term studies elucidate just how much time is taken for which daily activities. The results show that a great portion of women’s time goes to activities that are not considered part of the market economy and therefore seen as “uneconomic.” Much personal and societal wellbeing is achieved through work that stands outside of what is labeled the “economic” sphere. This would not be a problem as such if there were not social hierarchies attached to such work. Paid work is seen as more important than unpaid work (or it would be paid!) Marketed services and the manufacturing of products are more highly valued than the unpaid care for people within a household and if such work is paid, it is at a much lower rate than the production of goods for market exchange.

Indeed, studies to this effect exist here in Germany for over thirty years now and they all point to the fact that with this type of time allocation, gender hierarchies are set in stone. Work aimed at providing basic needs for food, for material and emotional wellbeing but also the care for the sick is life-sustaining work. The more life-sustaining it is, the more feminized it is.

This crisis brings us existentially face to face with these facts and the fundamental effect they have on our lives. Of course we can keep on living without producing more cars and airplanes even if we are not sure exactly what this means for the world economy, but for now we have been reduced to the basics of life. As individuals and as a society we need: food, homes, supply of essential goods and also empathetic care-giving as well as daily assistance and emotional support. Who provides this support? And how?

This is where time-use surveys help, providing a binocular lens to zoom in on “normal times.” It is women who take on this work and it is women who must carry most of the burden when all the safety nets of society like school, kindergarten, sport and cultural events, cease to function. We can only guess how all this extra work is going to affect women within the four walls of their homes. How are they to do “home office” when, at the same time the children should be home schooled? When shopping, cooking and household tasks necessarily take up even more time than usual? During “normal times” many middle-class families can afford to hire in help for housework and childcare. These women come almost exclusively from other countries and take over the care work. Even if they have higher education from their home country, they lack the appropriate employment opportunities in Germany. The Global Care Chain ensures that care work always ends up being “women’s work.”

And what will happen when the men who are usually “out of the house” are now home and need taking care of and kept in a good mood? Studies tell us that the more children in a household, the more time men work out of the house. This is not only for financial reasons. The salaries of both men and women are seen as an important resource for the family so as not to drown in the nitty-gritty problems of organizing daily life. But work out of the house seems to be much more attractive for men; often women work part-time to be able to accommodate care-giving responsibilities.

In the face of this virus, we are not all equal. It has hit prominent people too but how people react to the challenge of having no contact with others is dependent on income, one’s home situation and level of education.  Many freelance workers are women, such as hairdressers, seamstresses, artists or booksellers. The threat of existential loss hangs like the sword of Damocles over their lives more than it does for a semi-insured industrial worker who has access to partial unemployment benefits or for those working in the public sector.

What percent of hospital workers are women, who are now confronted with both those who have fallen sick and the lack of protective equipment? Much has been said about the dismantling of our health care system in the last thirty years of the privatization of public services. It is mostly women who joined the hospital walk-out in 2018 demanding that working conditions in the hospitals drastically improve. They were not striking for more money in their pockets but for more personnel and better care conditions for the patients. Yes! It makes you want to just scream out--yes! Yet, where have these improvements gone? The over-exploitation of our health care system is taking its toll dramatically. It is taking its toll on the patients and, ever more fatal, on the very women who sounded the alarm in the first place. The Berlin nurse Nina Magdalena Böhmer posted on Facebook: “You can shove your applause where the sun doesn’t shine.” She demands solidarity and political action for the hospital workers rather than songs and applause. She is fully justified.

Someone living in a spacious apartment will soon feel cramped but what about a family who lives in close quarters? Playgrounds are closed, no access to a backyard, no balcony where the children can get a breath of fresh air. In such cases, how is a person to carry out the obligations of home office and have a quiet moment for a video call while simultaneously receiving the child’s homework off by email? What is being asked of mothers who normally oversee their children’s homework to now act as assistant teachers as well? Not to mention how this should work for women who do not have German as their mother tongue and perhaps cannot even understand what the homework is about let alone help the children with their lessons. It is not just a question of how the “economy” will be kick-started again once the corona-crisis is over. That is short-sighted. The question is, how will these conflicts in the home be resolved which have been exacerbated through social inequalities? How will we be able to fix that? Re-invigorated economic growth has already been announced. I fear this “business as usual” approach will leave women to clean up the garbage.

PS In the U.S. Boeing asked for 60 billion dollars of state assistance and have been promised this money by Congress. The entire care sector has asked for 50 billion and has received 3.5. Any questions?

 

The article was published on April, 4, 2020 in the German Newspaper "Tagesspiegel"

 


 

Curriculum Vitae

  • Winter term 18/19 Senior Fellow at DFG Kolleg Postwachstumsgesellschaften at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena.

  • Summer term 2014 visiting Professor at Klara Marie Faßbinder für Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung am Fachbereich VI -- Raum- und Umweltwissenschaften -- der Universität Trier

  • Summer term 2013 research fellow at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics

  • 2006-2008 - Speaker for the Center of transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin

  • Since 2005 - Professor of Gender and Globalisation, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

  • 2003 -Habilitation at tthe Faculty of Spacial Planning, Universität-Dortmund

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