Written by Caitlin Masoliver, Gender Equality Working Group Researcher
From the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been considerable research and coverage on its gendered impacts. While the pandemic has affected all corners of the globe, it has not impacted everyone equally, nor in the same ways. One of the areas in which this is very clear is the different ways men and women have been impacted, be that in the effects on their health, the extent to which their jobs are at risk, or the proportion they make up of frontline healthcare workers. One key place where the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 is visible is in the governance and leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic of gender in the context of policy making is not new; in Europe, there are numerous examples of treaties and strategic frameworks aiming to encourage and achieve women’s improved participation in decision-making processes. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the question is raised as to what extent these frameworks have translated into concrete action, with a considerable presence of women in the governing bodies of the pandemic making a meaningful impact on policy making decisions. This paper will explore this question of how the governance of the COVID-19 pandemic has been shaped through a gender-lens. In order to do so, this paper will begin by providing an overview of how Europe responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of the governing bodies put in place to determine and implement measures to combat the spread of the virus and its social, economic, and political impacts. The importance of gender parity in policy making will be discussed, followed by an evaluation of the success of European states in integrating gender parity and gender considerations into their COVID-19 response. Ultimately, it will be argued that despite the efforts of the European Union and its member states to encourage equal participation of men and women in national decision-making processes, the national COVID-19 task forces set up in response to the pandemic have not adequately represented women’s voices in their membership, nor in their policy outputs. The paper will end with recommendations on how to ameliorate these shortcomings in future policymaking.
For the sake of argumentation, this paper will define the concept of gender in line with the working definitions of the European Union and its relevant institutional bodies. As such, when referring to gender and related concepts, this paper will refer to the broad categories of men and women. The author acknowledges, however, that gender identity and expression are far broader than this simple and dualistic distinction. More information on the working definitions of the European Union can be found here.
2. The Covid-19 response in Europe
While European nation-states have designated branches of domestic policymaking – for instance, health sectors which are designed to monitor, anticipate, and respond to the needs of public health – in response to the unique and emergency nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments put into motion their own national COVID-19 task forces. A COVID-19 task force is any institution – either temporary or permanent – created by a national government to lead the response to the pandemic across all sectors. This includes public health, economic recovery, and law enforcement, for instance (UNDP, 2021). The European Commission, for instance, set up its own Coronavirus response team, headed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and mandated with the medical, mobility, and economic pillars of COVID-19 response (European Commission, n.d.). Similarly, countries across Europe set up coronavirus response teams designated around these central pillars.
In recent years, the debate and discourse surrounding gender equality in politics and policymaking has been highly prevalent in the narrative of the European Union and its member states. This can be seen clearly in the treaties, policy frameworks, and strategies it has put in place. For instance, Article 8 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) – ratified by all 27 member states – provides that in all its activities, the EU shall aim to eliminate inequalities and to promote equality between men and women (TFEU, 2012). Similarly, the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020 – 2025 outlines objectives to challenge gender stereotypes, close gender gaps in the labour market, and achieve gender balance in decision-making and politics (EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025). This is further emphasised by the work of the European Institute of Gender Equality, the EU-initiated body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and related research and advocacy work (EIGE, n.d.). When it comes to the decision-making and leadership of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the question is raised as to what extent these objectives and commitments have manifested de facto.
3. Gender parity: Why does it matter?
Before analysing the extent to which commitments to equality in decision-making were realised in the governance of the pandemic in Europe, it is necessary to explain why gender parity in decision-making matters in the first place. Gender parity does not refer solely to the importance of having both men and women’s voices represented to some extent in politics; rather, it concerns the relative equality in number and proportion of women and men (EIGE, n.d.). In the context of governing bodies of the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, gender parity is achieved when the voices and decision-making power are equally shared in the platforms designed to debate, formulate, and implement the measures in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
One of the central arguments behind advocacy for equality in decision-making is that, in order to implement policies and laws that are effective in responding to the needs of a particular social group, you need the voices of that group at the table during the decision-making processes. It is not enough to merely have the group’s interests in mind; that group needs to be actively playing a role in shaping and framing the measures put in place to address their needs. Failing to do so runs the risk of improperly interpreting and responding to a particular group, if at all. This can be seen in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, in the delayed response time of government bodies in comparison to women-led and women-focused NGOs. From the very onset of the pandemic, with schools closing, many workers put on furlough or losing their jobs, and people confined to their homes, civil society-based organisations working on the issue of domestic and gender-based violence raised concerns that there would be a steep increase in cases (Evans, Lindauer, & Farrell, 2020). Indeed, in April 2020, there was a 60% increase in emergency calls to domestic violence hotlines in European member states, compared to the same period the previous year (Mahase, 2020). As presented by the New York Times (2020), this trend was seen across European nations: “First, governments impose lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims. About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions” (Taub, 2020). UNDP echoes this, stating that “the spike in violence against women and girls under pandemic lockdown measures, making the home one of the most unsafe places for women, was only to be expected. But most governments failed to anticipate it and have been slow to respond” (Egger, 2020). This phenomenon was visible in the response of the United Kingdom, for example. The British Home Office, when asked how they would prepare for the forecasted increase in domestic violence in the lead up to the imposed lockdown, responded that “existing sources of advice and support” would be available. In response, an open letter written and signed by civil society organisations was shared, voicing deep concern at the absence of a robust response by the UK government, in light of their expertise on domestic and gender-based violence (Public Interest Law Letter, 2020). This illustrates the risk of omitting voices from the decision-making process, where they are directly impacted and at risk. While the indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were only to be expected for some, taking the increase in domestic violence as an example, many governments failed to anticipate it, and were thus slow to respond. Ensuring representation of those affected by these issues is a pivotal way to ameliorate this risk.
Another central argument advocating for gender parity in policy and decision-making is the importance of having a diverse and potentially opposing range of opinions at the table, in order to avoid homogenous ‘group thinking’. This argument holds that ensuring a solid representation of, for instance, both men and women invites a more diverse set of experiences to the table, having potentially opposing viewpoints and voices heard in decision-making processes and discussions. Having potentially diverging opinions on the same topic and unique experiences of other unknown topics is, arguably, less likely to result in ‘group think’ and ‘echo chambers’. An echo chamber refers to instances where a group searches for and accepts information that supports their own, already established viewpoints, rather than challenging this with alternative opinions or interpretations of information (Sandahl, 2020). Such a phenomenon is more likely to occur when the group tasked with a decision represents a similar demographic, with similar needs and interests (Kamalnath, 2015). Similarly, ‘groupthink’ refers to the failure to consider alternatives to the dominant and accepted point of view (Kamalnath, 2015). Encouraging the participation of women, therefore, particularly in a sector traditionally dominated by men such as policymaking, may help to avoid a ‘group think’ mentality, and is thus more likely to bring about transformative change of traditionally repressive or exclusive frameworks. There is previous research to support this argumentation; for instance, research on the effects of gender parity in French politics found that women were more likely to criticise the present democratic arrangements than men, were more likely to highlight areas that were insufficiently representative of women, were more able to identify barriers preventing their access into politics and were more in favour of having women’s voices in large numbers in debates (Bird, 2003). As such, in order to initiate truly transformative change that steps away from traditional ways of thinking, gender parity is one element of diversity that should be encouraged in policy and decision-making bodies.
4. The inequality in Covid-19 decision-making.
After highlighting the importance of ensuring gender parity in decision-making of policymaking and law and considering the various commitments of the EU and its member states to advance such an objective, the question is raised as to what extent the governance of the COVID-19 pandemic achieved this balance in representation.
As discussed in the first section of the paper, one of the central institutional bodies guiding the governance of the COVID-19 pandemic are task forces. Set up on an ad-hoc basis to advise governments on the needed measures to address the various impacts of the virus, these typically brought together government ministry directors, prominent experts, and heads of well-known institutions (van Daalen et al., 2020). Of the 56 national COVID-19 task forces set up in European nations over the course of the pandemic, 39 of them were made up of a majority of men. In other words, 70% of the COVID-19 task forces guiding national decision-making over the course of the pandemic in Europe were overwhelmingly consisting of men. While 13 consisted of a majority of women, only two achieved gender parity, namely Finland and Jersey (UNDP, 2021), or just 3.5%. Over the course of the pandemic, considerable attention was given in the media to the strengths of female heads of state’s handling of the pandemic, highlighting the success of Angele Merkel in Germany, for instance, or Mette Frederiksen in Denmark in the early months of 2020 (Forbes, 2020). While these governments were figure-headed by women, when looking at the other tiers of decision-making actually advising national Parliaments and heads of state, a wide gap in gender balance continues to persist. As such, despite the key role women have played on the frontlines of the pandemic – as health workers, cleaners, and carers – they have remained disproportionately excluded from the decision-making processes guided to help them.
In addition to the absence of gender parity across COVID-19 response task forces in Europe, there is also a notable absence of an adoption of a gender-lens in the coronavirus response and recovery policy outputs of EU member states. One need not look far to read the ample body of research conducted over the course of 2020 on the gendered impacts of COVID-19; non-governmental organisations and international institutions such as UN Women (2020), the European Parliament (2021), and the World Health Organisation (2020) have published research reports, policy briefs, webinars, and roundtable discussions on the unique ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and continues to affect men and women distinctly. Despite this wide body of research and evidence collected on the gendered impacts of the pandemic, however, this has not been translated throughout the policy outputs of all European member states’ response and recovery plans. Research conducted by UNDP analysed 908 measures implemented over the course of the pandemic that were designed to directly address a particular impact of the pandemic, such as unemployment benefits for those unable to continue running their businesses, or allowing flexible leave for those caring for a child at home who tested positive for coronavirus. Of these, while one-third had a specific gender lens integrated, these overwhelmingly focused on violence against women (242 out of 351). While violence against women has indeed increased during lockdown, coronavirus has also negatively impacted a multitude of other factors, such as increased percentages of women taking on unpaid care work, and heightened economic insecurity. This suggests that policymaking bodies in Europe can go further to ensure their social protection, labour market, and fiscal and economic policies are designed in a way that addresses women’s unique needs and rights.
This paper has presented arguments supporting moves towards gender parity in the decision-making processes and bodies in the response to COVID-19. In doing so, it has highlighted the shortcomings concerning the nationally led responses to the pandemic across Europe, exploring the absence of women in the higher tiers of decision-making and the impact this could have on the policy outputs. This paper brings forward the following recommendations, to ensure not only an improved representation of women in policymaking in the context of the pandemic, but to also ensure that the policies that are developed are effective in responding to a diverse subset of society’s needs. Specifically, this paper recommends the following:
- Engage non-governmental, civil society-based organisations in consultative processes to advise governmental task forces and policymaking bodies. As illustrated, there are organisations led by and/or directly targeting those who may be absent from official government-led processes, who are able to articulate well in advance the unique impacts the pandemic may have and is having on certain social groups. Consulting these organisations well in advance and engaging with their insights and recommendations can help to fill the gaps where official representation may be lacking.
- Ensure that when striving for gender parity in decision-making, this goes beyond merely setting a quota and gender divide. As discussed above, simply putting a quota in place towards achieving equal representation of men and women is not enough to achieve a truly diverse and representative decision-making process. Task forces and other institutional bodies given the mandate of guiding the governance of the pandemic should represent a diverse array of society, for example, in socio-economic background, ethnicity, and educational background. As such, commitments to achieving gender parity should also ensure they pursue intersectional representation.
- Do not settle on merely having representation of both men and women at the table, by also ensuring that the policy outputs and frameworks of these decision-making bodies adopt a gender lens. This means integrating a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures, and spending programmes, with a view to promoting equality between women and men and combating discrimination (EIGE, 2017).
In summary, this paper explored the extent to which European member states have successfully translated their targets to ensure gender parity into their national COVID-19 response. Overall, it has been argued that despite efforts of the European Union and its member states to encourage equal participation of men and women in decision-making, women have been overwhelmingly excluded from the governance of national COVID-19 responses. The impacts of this exclusion can be seen, for example, in the delayed responses of governments to phenomena long predicted by civil-based groups, such as the increase in domestic violence during confinement measures, as well as in the absence of a gender lens in COVID-19 response and recovery plans. To ameliorate these shortcomings, the paper has presented three recommendations as to how the potential involvement and impact of women in leadership of the COVID-19 pandemic can be realised: namely, to engage non-governmental, civil society-based organisations in consultative processes to advise governmental task forces and policymaking bodies; to ensure that when striving for gender parity in decision-making, this goes beyond merely setting a quota and gender divide, and lastly, to not settle on merely having representation of both men and women at the table, by also ensuring that the policy outputs and frameworks of these decision-making bodies adopt a gender lens.
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