Women Exhausted by the Coronavirus Crisis

Franziska Schutzbach, sociologist and best-selling author on the history of the modern market economy and the devaluation of caring.

Countless women were forced out of paid employment and into unpaid care work during the pandemic. Sociologist Franziska Schutzbach, author of bestseller "Die Erschöpfung der Frauen", explains that this was not merely coincidental and notes the historical reasons behind this phenomenon. A guest commentary on the history of the modern market economy and the devaluation of caring.


The number of women in Germany caring full-time for their children doubled from eight to 16 percent during the first lockdown. In April 2020, one woman in four stated that she had reduced her working hours because of childcare issues. The corresponding figure for men was only 13 per cent. A study by the Leibniz Information Centre for Economics noted higher levels of job losses for women in the pandemic than for men, as women are overrepresented in sectors with extensive marginal employment – catering, retail, tourism, culture – and many such “mini-jobs” vanished entirely when businesses had to close. Furthermore, healthcare is the sector that employs the highest proportion of women. Although nursing staff were initially applauded, this gave rise to few tangible improvements. Tens of thousands have left the profession since the pandemic began.

Those are the terms in which Sabine Rennefanz takes stock of the situation in her recent bookFrauen und Kinder zuletzt. And there’s more: 73 per cent of the funding made available in the 2020 stimulus and crisis support package was distributed to sectors that mainly employ men. Only 4.2 per cent of total funding was allocated to sectors with a predominantly female workforce. Rennefanz notes that men’s work, unlike that of women, was considered to be of “systemic importance”. The situation globally is just as bad: in 2020 alone, women around the world lost $800 billion in income. In Japan, twice as many women as men were laid off; in the USA, 3.5 million women with school-age children left their jobs between March and April 2020.

That does not come as much of a surprise. Women are still made responsible for roles that are accorded little prestige and allocated scant resources in our society. In particular in social crises or when deregulation and cost-cutting are on the cards, women act as social buffers and are supposed to give their families respite from the world’s harsh realities.


Women are expected to keep the economy running – with barely a word of thanks

Providing care to vulnerable humans has always been an outsourced activity; “mothers” or “women” are supposed to function like free private clinics. For centuries, femininity has been equated with caring. That is why people tend to assume that women are quite willing, or even innately destined, to take on such tasks – and will therefore do so free of charge. In response to that state of affairs, activist Mariarosa Dalla Costa founded the International Feminist Collective in 1971 with a number of other women in Italy, also launching the “Wages for Housework” campaign with this alliance. Many groups with similar agendas also formed in what was then West Germany. They argued that women’s unpaid domestic work was neither “natural” nor a product of maternal instincts, but rather an economic factor that enabled capitalist production. Before they can generate profits, factory and office workers must first be born, nurtured, loved, educated and cared for. As the activists put it, care work constitutes the invisible foundation of the market.

To put that into perspective: 16.4 billion hours of unpaid domestic and family work are done worldwide every day – three quarters of it by women. Profits would be lower if the market had to pay for this labour. Clinging to the idea that women are naturally predisposed to unpaid care work is therefore economically lucrative.

Economist Mascha Madörin notes that care work is accorded such a low status largely because it is not what is dubbed a “high value-added” sector. In the automotive industry, for example, working hours can be condensed, outsourced and automated. That lowers production costs and boosts value creation. This approach is not possible to the same extent in the health, care work and education sectors. Costs in those areas thus seem to be constantly exploding. With a view to nonetheless cutting costs, savings are made by curbing staffing and wage levels.


The precaritisation of (paid) care work

One consequence of care work’s devaluation is that it is outsourced to people in increasingly precarious circumstances. Those who can afford it purchase this labour cheaply from women from poorer social classes and countries. There is now a global precariat of migrant care workers, made up of about 100 million domestic workers who serve growing demand around the globe. Just a few examples: Around 5.6 million mostly underpaid Filipino women work in private households in the USA; 300,000 Indonesian women set off annually to work in private homes in Hong Kong, Singapore or Saudi Arabia. In Germany, most women who work in private households are from Eastern Europe. They have some of the most adverse working conditions observed, as they are not covered by statutory labour law.

In this context, historian Jovita dos Santos Pinto refers to capitalism that is both sexist and “racialised”, in which the market takes advantage of the intersections between ethnicised/racist and gendered images. In this spirit, societal expectations of care are linked not only to gendered but also to ethnicised ideas about, for example, “the nature of the migrant woman”. Sociologist Sarah Schilliger shows that Swiss agencies that place commuter migrant women as caregivers in Swiss private households specifically advertise that these women are particularly caring, hardworking, devoted and frugal because of their “Slavic ancestry”.


Devaluation of care work – not a new phenomenon

The connection between the capitalist market economy, devaluation of women and their availability for care work is already apparent in early liberal economic theories: from the outset, national economic theories foregrounded what are described as “productive” activities, such as research and development, manufacturing, and trade, while reproductive activities like pregnancy, childbirth, childcare, care of the elderly and sick, as well as housekeeping, remained invisible. The founder of classical macroeconomics, Adam Smith (1723-1790), proclaimed in his theories on prosperity that everyone should pursue their individual profit interests and utility considerations. Prosperity would automatically arise as a result. Smith wrote in 1776: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”

Work and action are thus not motivated by charity or pleasure, but rather by self-interest. Smith holds that to ensure this self-interest is developed and exercised in the best possible way, we need – in a nutshell – free markets. To put it bluntly: selfishness automatically creates prosperity for all. At the same time, Homo economicus apparently manages without love and care: the common good is based on profit, while other categories, such as emotional care, play no part.

There is a certain irony in the many years that Adam Smith spent living at home with his mother and being cared for by her. She cooked, washed and cleaned for him. However, this state of affairs did not spill over into his reflections – otherwise he would probably not have written about the “invisible hand of the market” but about the “invisible hand of the mother”.

Earlier too, the complete omission of any reference to care and neediness in economic theories is evident in Thomas Hobbes’ image of a “state of nature” in which people compete with or even try to annihilate each other. Hobbes sees people as “mushrooms that sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity, and grow up against each other without all kind of engagement to each other”. Such models correspond to a masculinist phantasm: this is a vision of not having been born through another body, “but sprouting up straight from the earth, independent of one another”, to cite Eva von Redecker. This (male) image of humankind is still the point of departure for standard economic doctrines and continues to shape many people’s attitudes in everyday life. However, anyone who wants to uphold and maintain this kind of image of humanity must exclude many other aspects that make up human existence. This is exactly what has happened: realms such as care, relationships, housework, and emotions have been split off, ascribed to a particular group (women) and simultaneously devalued.


A rethink is needed!

Women have fought against this, a struggle that continues today. All over the world, women are demanding recognition, as well as more time and resources for the care work they provide, not only in families, but also in offices, as underpaid staff in hospitals or day-care centres, in friendships or partnerships. To date, however, these demands have fallen on deaf ears. The situation has even deteriorated: while political progress has been achieved on gender issues in other areas, exploitation and exhaustion related to care work have clearly worsened. As a consequence of deregulation, austerity measures, dismantling of social systems, and women’s increasing employment levels, care work has grown ever more precarious. Caring for one another is increasingly pushed out of the limelight; the focus on gainful employment leads to dwindling acceptance that these care activities are essential. At the same time, there is a growing need for these activities as people are growing older and need care for longer.

Exploitation of care work, just like exploitation of ecological resources, is not sustainable in the long run. That means we shall be compelled to put care work – including care for the planet – at the heart of society and the economy. Feminist thinkers like Gabriele Winker, Ina Praetorius, Antje Schrupp, Nancy Fraser, Frigga Haug, and many others have long called for a different approach to addressing fundamental economic questions. We should no longer simply ask “How can we make a profit?”, but must instead enquire what people require to thrive.

A new mindset that places care work and relationship-oriented activities centre-stage is essential. We need a care economy that recognises, as Ina Praetorius writes, “that everyone, not just those described as ‘weak’, is dependent on care”. In Praetorius’ view, this insight also has consequences for ecological politics, as it makes clear that people are dependent both on each other and on an intact environment. The aim is thus to understand care work as a social practice and responsibility, rather than something that it will obviously be handled by families.

Economic objectives take on a different slant if we consider work and the economy through the prism of people’s vulnerability and neediness, while also factoring in the finite, vulnerable world of nature. It is high time that we put care and relationship at the centre of our society, ensuring everyone has the time and resources required for successful care relationships. As sociologist Nancy Fraser writes, “The real feat will ultimately be to organise the social world in a way that allows citizens to strike a balance between earning money, caring roles, community engagement, political participation and societal involvement – and still have as much time as possible for fun too”.

Dr. Franziska Schutzbach, born in 1978, holds a PhD in gender studies and sociology, is a journalist, feminist activist and mother of two. In 2017, she initiated #SchweizerAufschrei, a Swiss anti-sexism campaign, and has since consolidated her reputation as a renowned, sought-after feminist voice in Switzerland and beyond. She is the author of the bestseller Die Erschöpfung der Frauen. Wider die weibliche Verfügbarkeit.

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