Forgotten superheroines: Covid-19 and the effects on the social and working environment of women in Austria

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Sonja Karpf
Weber & Co, Vienna

Katharina Kitzberger
Weber & Co, Vienna

Worsening of gender inequalities

Inequalities are deeply rooted. In times of crisis, change processes are either accelerated or slowed down. Equality is regarded as being of secondary importance in times of crisis, becoming a luxury issue. Women's rights have to wait. Falling back into old patterns and injustices is a major problem for gender equality in the working environment (and thus also for the economy and society).

The crisis is being played out on women's backs

Globally, 70 per cent of staff in social and care professions are women.[1] Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the work burden in so-called 'system-relevant' professions increases drastically. The main care during school closures, quarantine or illness of children is provided by women. Further, women are less likely to have access to home offices on the basis of gender roles, because they tend to assume more of the role of taking care of children and the household, instead of being able to work in a concentrated manner.

As a result, women are far more likely than men to fear professional disadvantages if they use home offices, regardless of their career level.[2] Due to the heavy pressure of double and triple workloads, women lose touch with their jobs. They are torn out of the work process and are at increased risk of losing their jobs due to increased absenteeism. This double injustice increases the risk that women will relapse into financial dependence and precarious living situations.[3]

The future outlook is just as gloomy. For employers, women became hard-to-calculate risks during the crisis because of the lack of childcare options. As a result, women lost their jobs, and men have been favoured when rehiring or creating new jobs.

In summary, women are the silent social losers of the crisis. Working mothers were and are left in the lurch, and single parents were hit all the harder by the shutdowns.

Legislators must act to relieve women with a double or triple burden in their professional everyday lives, to protect them from violence and to secure their career progression despite the crisis .

No adequate legal framework

As the schools and kindergartens in Austria were never completely closed, the existing legal rights to childcare leave (Section 16, Austrian Holidays Act (Urlaubsgesetz)) or prevention of work for other important reasons (Section 8, Paragraph 3, Austrian Employee Act (Angestelltengesetz) or Section 1154, Paragraph 5, Austrian General Civil Law (Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or ABGB) did and still do not apply.

At the beginning of the crisis, the legislator established the possibility for employees with certain care obligations, due to (partial) school and kindergarten closures, of claiming a special care period of up to three weeks (the so called Sonderbetreuungszeit pursuant to Section 18b of the Austrian Labour Contract Law (Arbeitsvertragsrechts-Anpassungsgesetz)). However, employees had no legal claim to make use of the special care period; rather, the employer's consent was required. Since November 2020, employees with certain care obligations now have a legal right to claim the special care period for up to four weeks, but only for children under 14 years and in the case that schools and kindergartens are closed or that the respective child is in quarantine.

The situation in the working environments is different: since the very beginning of the crisis, parents are urged by the government not to make use of the existing childcare options (only in case of urgent need, eg, when parents are working in system-relevant professions). Very few children are making use of the existing childcare options – leading to the situation that other children do not want to go to childcare either – and/or children have home-schooling and distance learning options. In practical terms, this means that parents – in practice mostly women – have to both fulfil their work and look after their children at the same time. Where possible, employees are asked to work from home, which in the the event of school and kindergarten closure or home-schooling, means that (mostly) women have to work and look after their children at the same time. This is an enormous burden.

In addition, the majority of employees have been  asked to reduce leave and overtime, which, for now, in case of official shutdowns may also be ordered by the employer without consent of the employee (Section 1155, ABGB). From an employer's perspective, this approach is comprehensible. What is not considered, however, is the fact that parents are dependent on their holiday days or time off due to their children’s numerous school and kindergarten holidays. What is more, the special care period does not cover these periods of school and kindergarten closures. It is to be expected that, for the upcoming holidays, parents and especially women will be forced to reduce their working hours.

The lethargy of the legislator in adjusting the legal framework towards more parent and women-friendly regulations is leading to dreadful socio-political consequences for women, such as retrograde steps in professional equality process, high physical and mental stress, financial pressure, and a long-term impact on career advancement and inequality in the workplace.

Measures to be taken

The creation of an adequate legal framework that promotes equality by ensuring childcare even in times of crisis is an important step. The tax deductibility of costs for alternative childcare options (in the event of schools closing) would lead to financial relief. The regulations regarding home offices must be adjusted. There is also an urgent need to support women in the form of subsidies, eg, for setting up an adequate home workstation (laptops etc), for having alternative childcare options and for additional immediate measures for single mothers.

Finally, a constant (and in times of crisis, even louder) social and political discourse concerning inequality is important. Social and care profession roles, mostly carried out by women, must be upgraded. A redistribution of paid and unpaid work is needed to break down stereotypical role models and enable women to earn a living wage and pursue careers. This will require a shift in responsibilities and making women's careers more respected.

Each of us can help drive the equality process forward, both in our personal and professional lives. In a professional context, reflecting on female lawyers’ situations and trying to improve current homeworking guidelines – for example, by granting financial relief for alternative childcare options – could be an initial step. In the end, Covid-19 should not let us forget: ‘We rise by lifting others’.

[1], ‘Corona: Eine Krise der Frauen’ (UN Women Deutschland), see www.unwomen.de/aktuelles/corona-eine-krise-der-frauen.html, accessed 8 January 2021.

[2]Mader, Derndorfer, Disslbacher, Lechinger, Six, Der Lockdown und die Unvereinbarkeit von Home-Office und Kinderbetreuung (Portal der Arbeiterkammern) , see www.arbeiterkammer.at/interessenvertretung/arbeitundsoziales/familie/Homeoffice_und_Kinderbetreuung_2020.pdf, accessed 8 January 2021.

[3]Bock-Schappelwein, Famira-Mühlberger, Mayrhuber, ‘COVID-19: Ökonomische Effekte auf Frauen’ (WIFO, 22 April 2020), see www.wifo.ac.at/news/covid-19_oekonomische_effekte_auf_frauen, accessed 8 January 2021.

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