Marking Women's Day, The Malta Chamber's Health & Wellness committee recently concluded work on its policy document on burden sharing in a gender context. There is a large body of research showing that, to a greater or lesser extent across the globe, women do most of the world's unpaid care work (75% according to a study by Moreira da Silva in 2019).
Emerging UN research (April 2020) now suggests that with the onset of Covid-19, there has been a dramatic increase in this burden. It will be difficult for women and women's employers to realise their full potential without more burden sharing in our society. The care burden has long made it difficult for women to fully participate in the workforce on the same level as men, with implications as far as discrepancies in pension and the wage differential. Despite the higher female participation rate in Malta, the wage gap is not reducing according to a 2017 study by Rose Marie Azzopardi published in the International Journal of Arts and Sciences.
The state has taken steps in many economies, including Malta's, to address unequal contribution to the unpaid economy by women. Good local examples of this are maternity leave contributions and the provision of free childcare centres. Without improved education however, as soon as there are issues with provision of these services, it is again women who have to pick up the burden. The less educated sectors of society generally fare worse in this regard. Their access to education and funds to supplement their care giving role is much lower than their more educated sisters who are more likely to have more educated partners in jobs where they can also work from home.
More effort must be made for a societal shift in mindset, looking at solutions and exploring the educational tools available to help along the way.
The time women spend on responsibilities at home after paid work may be seen as the 'second shift'. This is then followed by the 'third shift', or mental load of family responsibilities which is also often seen as women's work.
Beyond pressures to keep out of the workforce, these burdens may result in missing out on promotion opportunities due to being constrained to work reduced hours and inflexibility in their work routines due to school hours. Studies in many countries show that flexible working patterns without education and awareness of gender bias actually cement traditional gender roles and pay gaps, enabling and encouraging women to combine paid work with hours of unpaid work, while fathers do not avail themselves of similar arrangements.
Policymakers do not need to re-invent the wheel to find solutions. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, calls us to 'recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work' in a number of ways. The EU's Work-Life Balance Directive is now being transposed into Maltese law, and includes points on burden sharing such as the fact that fathers are given at least 10 working days of paternity leave and that two out of four months of parental leave are non-transferable between parents, to avoid women (and their employers) taking on all the care burden themselves.
The policy document seeks to both educate but also to arm policymakers with indications of other policy instruments available. Toolkits like those offered by the UN HeForShe programme promote a vision for an equal world which allows talented individuals of both genders to truly have the choice of whether to fully participate or not in the paid economy.
Organisations can be proactive and foster change within their structures and culture by utilising such awareness raising tools, rather than waiting for top down pressures from outside the organisations to help share women's burdens.
The document proposes further measures government can consider using case studies of actions taken in Sweden and Belgium, offering fiscal incentives supporting outsourcing of housework for example. Supporters of these systems argue that, as well as enabling parents in dual-income families to spend more time at work or with their children, boost jobs and reduce the black market for cash-in-hand household services.
Work at grassroots level to increase awareness and education as well as promotion of state incentives and programmes which, through 'use it or lose it' benefits which require burden sharing, can go a long way to widening opportunities for women. We must understand that if the best talent is enabled, our organisations and ultimately our nation, will be more competitive. Allowing women the choice and full opportunity to contribute to our organisations to the best of their ability will enable our whole nation to make use of our best talent irrespective of gender.
Catherine Calleja is Chair of The Malta Chamber's Health & Wellness committee. This Committee being supported by Atlas Insurance.
This blog post was published as an article on The Malta Independent on the 8th of March 2021.