Changes in private and social life caused by the pandemic have reignited scientific interest in gender inequality in the labour market. Russian economy has adapted to the crisis mainly through price adjustment, and this means the gender pay gap is likely to grow.
  |   Oksana Sinyavskaya

Changes in private and social life caused by the pandemic have reignited scientific interest in gender inequality in the labour market. Russian economy has adapted to the crisis mainly through price adjustment, and this means the gender pay gap is likely to grow.

The coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions have had different effects on employment and the unpaid workload of men and women in the majority of developed countries. Before the pandemic, Russia’s performance differed from that of other countries: here, many factors of gender inequality used to be relatively small, but adaptation to the crisis was partially similar to the trends in developed economies.

What explains the gender inequality in the labour market

Historically, economics relies on human capital theory along with new home economics, the theory of compensating differences, and the economics of discrimination to explain the gender employment and pay gap. It assumes that decisions about human capital investment, marriage, childbearing, and labour division within the family are interrelated.

  • According to human capital theory and the concept of labour division within the family put forward by the new home economics, women, being biologically ‘better equipped’ for birth and childcare, specialise in the skills that increase their productivity at home and as a result, prefer jobs that require lower human capital investment. Periods of unemployment caused by childbirth contribute to the growing gap between mothers and childless women and men in terms of accumulated human capital. And this can affect both further employment decisions and the income gap between women with and without children (‘motherhood penalty’) and between women and men. After having children, women may devote even more time to housework and childcare, which allows men to focus on work and aggravates inequality in human capital and market labour productivity.
  • The theory of compensating differences explains gender segregation by sector and wage inequality by women put greater value on non-monetary characteristics of the workplace (distance from home, job flexibility, shorter hours, home office, welfare benefits) that would allow them to work while taking care of their children; at the same time, men received higher wages for choosing jobs with less comfortable working conditions.
  • The economics of discrimination suggest that lower wages for women in general, and women with children in particular, may reflect the negative attitude of employers (stemming from the notion that women are less reliable workers who are ‘always on maternity or sick leave’ and are ‘constantly thinking about household chores’). For men with children, the opposite mechanism may be in place: employers may pay them more (‘fatherhood premium’) assuming that fathers are interested in stable and well-paid jobs.

In recent decades, economic research on gender inequality in the labour market and pay gaps has considerably expanded (paper via link in Russian) the list of possible explanations. Non-cognitive characteristics, social identity, and attitudes towards gender roles have been included in the analysis, which also takes into account the effects of various institutions established in the second half of the 20th century in order to make it easier to juggle parenthood and child-bringing, i.e. preschools and other child care services, maternal, paternal, and parental leaves, etc.

Gender inequality in the Russian labour market

Compared to most of the developed countries, Russia has a fairly high level of employment among women, including women with children. Unemployment periods due to childbirth are not very long. And most often, women work full-time. Another defining feature of Russia is higher human capital among women, including compared to men.

Nevertheless, the pay gap between men and women is still very high, and higher than in the majority of OECD countries. The key reason for this is gender segregation by sector and occupation. And as researchers from the World Bank and the Higher School of Economics (paper via link in Russian) point out, another reason is possibly wage discrimination against women.

In Russia, there are fewer empirical studies of the ‘motherhood penalty’ and ‘fatherhood premium’ than in the most developed countries. However, available research shows that both are small. In the early 2000s, the motherhood penalty was estimated (paper via link in Russian) at about 8% based on data of the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS). Estimates based on the 2014 RLMS data were half as much ( see pdf in Russian).

Women with young children face the biggest penalties; at the same time, coming back from maternity leave, women get back to their pre-maternity income levels quite quickly, because unlike European mothers for example, they work full-time. There is an alarming tendency: women with higher education face above-average penalties (paper via link in Russian).

The fatherhood premium, adjusted for a man’s individual traits and the number and age of children, is about 2.5–3%, as shown by the study (paper via link in Russian) conducted by Aleksey Oshchepkov of the HSE Centre for Labour Market Studies using RLMS data for 2000–2018. He also mentions the ‘spouse premium’ (i.e. for men who are legally married) of 3%.

The ‘motherhood penalty’ can be low for a number of reasons: for example, persistently low level of childlessness (the vast majority of women still give birth to at least one child); low wages that force women back into the labour market regardless of their attitudes; a limited number of part-time jobs; and the already mentioned gender segregation and discrimination against women, which result in lower income of women regardless of them having children or not. At the same time, traditionally strong intergenerational ties make it possible for mothers to go back to work even when preschool facilities are limited: grandmothers can take large-scale care of children or at least help manage life with them by picking them up from kindergarten or school, taking them to extracurricular activities, or taking sick leaves instead of mothers.

Pandemic and the gender inequality

The usual balance of work and family life was shattered almost overnight by the pandemic and the measures that governments took to contain its spread. In the spring of 2020, many countries imposed lockdowns, which were especially harsh for the elderly, stopped many businesses, shifted some work to home, and closed preschools and schools.

The first year of the pandemic has provided ample empirical proof that in developed countries, the position of women in the labour market has deteriorated more than that of men. In the United States, unlike during previous crises (for instance, the 2008 global financial crisis), it was women who were more likely than men to lose their jobs in 2020 and reduce their work hours to a greater extent. A similar situation was observed in Canada and Spain. However, there are also research papers that show that men were hit harder on average by the pandemic crisis, for example, in the United Kingdom and Russia.

One reason for the changes observed is the different employment patterns of men and women before the pandemic. On one hand, women were more likely to work in the sectors most severely hit by the lockdown (hospitality, tourism, services, etc.), and therefore, were more likely than men to face the negative effects of the pandemic. Moreover, in many developed countries, women were more likely to hold jobs with non-standard employment conditions (part-time jobs, fixed-term contracts) that also suffered more from the crisis. On the other hand, women dominate in so-called vital sectors and occupations (medicine, social services, education, public transport, food retail) where employment did not decline during the pandemic.

At the same time, mothers, especially those with young children, faced the highest risks of job loss or reduced hours in Australia, the UK, Germany, Singapore, and the United States. In particular, the results of a survey conducted in February-April (early weeks of the ‘first wave’) in the United States showed that mothers with children under 5 years old cut their work hours up to five times more than fathers. In Germany, fathers also had a smaller reduction in employment than mothers.

These changes were primarily driven by significantly decreased formal and informal childcare options. Although both parents have been affected by the increased burden of household responsibilities, women have traditionally been more involved in childcare, as the 2020 surveys confirmed. In Australia, for example, on one hand, fathers have started spending more time with their children, and the parental gap within the households where both parents work has somewhat narrowed; on the other hand, mothers’ unpaid workload has also increased compared to pre-pandemic levels. In Italy, women did most of the housework, although childcare responsibilities were distributed somewhat more evenly between the spouses. A study conducted in England has shown that women devoted much more time to the house and children and had to juggle work and childcare for most of their paid work hours. In Spain, most of the additional domestic workload was also done by women. The decisions about how household responsibilities are divided within the family may be based on income gaps between the partners or employment conditions before the pandemic or they may reflect the existing social norms about gender roles.

Even when mothers manage to remain employed and work from home, their productivity seems to suffer more than that of fathers, as they face a higher family workload and are more likely to be disturbed while working. In the long run, this may affect their chances for promotion. Thus, researchers generally conclude that the pandemic increases gender inequality in the labour market by undermining the position of women, and especially women with children.

In Russia, an Internet survey conducted by the Higher School of Economics in May 2020 showed that men more often than women noted (article via link in Russian) that their situation deteriorated as a result of the crisis and feared job loss, while the researchers found no gender differences in the risks of reduced hours, forced leaves or pay cuts. In turn, women were more likely than men to talk about working from home and increasing workload. A telephone survey conducted by the same HSE research team in mid-June showed that men were more likely (article via link in Russian) to work remotely and for a greater number of hours. At the same time, another online survey showed that the pandemic did not narrow (paper via link in Russian) the gender gap in household chores; moreover, during the lockdown, women’s workload within the household increased more than that of men.

The influence of the pandemic on the position of women and men in the Russian labour market is likely to be less significant and will manifest itself in different ways than in developed countries. On one hand, Russia introduced severe restrictions for a shorter period. During the second wave, almost all enterprises remained in operation; kindergartens were open, just like schools in most regions. Therefore, the domestic burden in Russia might increase less siginificantly. Informal help from grandmothers was also partly available, given that multigenerational households are quite widespread and restrictions for the elderly during the second wave were less stringent.

On the other hand, research shows that Russia is mainly adapting to this crisis through price adjustment (article via link in Russian). Given gender peculiarities of employment, it is likely to widen the gender pay gap.

Gender inequality in the post-pandemic world

Almost in all countries, the pandemic has increased gender inequality within families and in the labour market. Some European countries (Austria, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Cyprus, Lithuania, Slovakia, etc.) have introduced care leave policies for employees to care for their sick children or other relatives. Given the traditional distribution of family responsibilities, this measure, while aimed at keeping workers connected to the workplace and supporting family income, can exacerbate this inequality.

To strike a balance between the responsibilities borne by women and men within the family, more gender-neutral tools are obviously needed to encourage men’s participation in household responsibilities and caring for children or other relatives. Something similar to paternal quotas in parental leaves or paternity leaves to care for children seems to be a more promising response to periodic closures of kindergartens and schools or prolonged child illnesses.

As the pandemic wears off, it is becoming even more urgent to develop both childcare institutions (accessible day care centres and kindergartens) and measures aimed at bringing women back into the labour market (retraining, job search assistance) and reducing gender inequality in the labour market (anti-discrimination legislation, quotas for women in leadership and public administration; supporting businesses that allow employees of both genders balance parenting and work, etc.).