ILO at EESC hearing on telework and gender equality

News | 15 January 2021
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the working arrangements of millions of employees who are now based at home and may continue to work at home, in some capacity, for the foreseeable future. A hearing hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) discussed how to ensure that women and workers with family responsibilities benefit from teleworking in terms of career progression, work-life balance and gender equality.

Due to the pandemic, millions of women and men shifted to telework overnight, while schools and day-care centres were shut and grandparents discouraged from providing childcare. “This meant that the amount of domestic chores and unpaid care they had to perform went up,” explained Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO Conditions of Work and Equality Department.

Preliminary evidence suggests that women shoulder the brunt of this additional pressure. Their share of unpaid care work was already unbalanced before the COVID-19 outbreak, with the share of the daily time spent on unpaid care borne by women ranging from 80% in Portugal and 74% in Italy, to 57% in Denmark. “It is unlikely that this will improve with teleworking, unless there is a conscious decision to counter the situation,” said Ms Tomei.

So how can women and men emerge from the pandemic with a less skewed distribution of domestic responsibilities? The government can keep schools open during the pandemic as much as feasible. The crisis has shown that telework will only work if the childcare and education infrastructure is there. Access to affordable, reliable and high-quality childcare and elderly care is essential if people are to concentrate on their work without constant interruptions due to family care or domestic chores.

The government can also review leave policies, including parental leave, whether paid or unpaid. During the pandemic, many countries have broadened, on a temporary basis, the circumstances under which paid parental leave is granted. This is the case of the special coronavirus-related parental leave to assist parents working from home in Belgium or the introduction of unpaid leave for childcare as part of job retention schemes.

However, available evidence shows that women mainly took up these leaves. This underlines the importance of designing maternity, paternity and parental leaves in ways that do not reproduce or reinforce the unequal gender division of unpaid care work.

The right of employees to disconnect from their work is another important means to prevent anxiety and burnout and allow for work-life balance.

At the organization level, workplace policies and strategies need to ensure that those who choose or are mandated to work at home do not experience negative career consequences, such as not being offered career advancement or training opportunities. To the extent possible, when meetings are convened, should be adaptable and accommodate the different needs of employees. If you still need to be on call for a typical “9 to 5”, the benefits of working remotely are significantly reduced.

There are many collective agreements regarding telework in the EU Member States. “These agreements typically include (at least) those elements in the European Framework Agreement on Telework, but they do not include a specific clause on gender equality. This may be an area warranting closer attention,” the Director concluded.