Gender equality still elusive (even this Valentine's Day)

The pandemic has affected more than just the ability to commemorate this traditional feast: it has also exposed certain deep-seated inequalities that still exist between men and women in Malta today

Today is St Valentine’s Day: traditionally, a festivity where ‘lovers express their affection for each other with greetings and gifts’.

Like most annual commemorative festivities – Christmas, Easter, etc. – Valentine’s Day can trace its origins to pagan rites and rituals: specifically, to a Roman fertility festival known as the Lupercalia, held in mid-February.

Also like other traditional feasts, it has been somewhat commercialised over the centuries. Today, Valentine’s Day is also an annual occasion eagerly anticipated by restaurateurs, florists and gift/card shops alike; and as such, it is just as susceptible to the ebb and flow of the national economy.

From this perspective, the festivity is almost certain to feel the pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. After all, the social distancing measures currently in place seem to fly directly in the face of the intimacy we normally associate with ‘romance’.

But the pandemic has affected more than just the ability to commemorate this traditional feast: it has also exposed certain deep-seated inequalities that still exist between men and women in Malta today.

It is, of course, a coincidence; but this week, the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality released a survey (originally carried out in June and July) examining the male/female distribution of work within households over the preceding months.

The survey asked respondents about the increase/decrease in time spent on different tasks – paid work, housework, caring for children, home-schooling for children, etc. – as a result of COVID-19. It also inquired about the respondents’ perception of equality in the sharing of responsibilities during the pandemic.

The findings indicate that, during the pandemic, the increase in the number of hours spent doing household tasks and childcare increased significantly more for women than for men; while the time spent on leisure, personal care and sleep decreased more for women than it did for men.

This appears to confirm that the existing gender inequality, in the distribution of unpaid household and caring responsibilities, was exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.

Specifically, 58.4% of female respondents stated that the hours spent on housework increased during the pandemic, when compared to 55.2% of men.

Female respondents also reported a higher overall increase (63%) when it comes to caring for children, in comparison to male respondents (60.7%). Moreover, double the number of female respondents reported an increase in the category “Increased by 13 hours or more”.

The survey also exposed a substantial 16% gap between female and male respondents reporting an increase in the time spent on home-schooling – 80.2% for females and 64.2% for males.

Female respondents were furthermore likelier to report an increase in the hours spent caring for dependent adults during the pandemic – 54.7% in comparison to 44% of males.

Moreover, 43.8% of female respondents with children of 15 years or younger – compared to 39.3% of male respondents – reported a decrease in sleeping hours.

Admittedly, these findings reflect gender stereotypes that are arguably just as old - if not much older – than the feast of St Valentine’s itself. But this, in turn, also forces us to confront how very antiquated our cultural preconceptions really are: even today, in the 21st century.

By the same token, it also raises questions about what can be done to address this gargantuan mismatch in gender roles. How can such a deeply ingrained cultural mindset, forged over millennia, be eradicated through simple policy changes?

It would, naturally, be unrealistic to expect any instant results: nonetheless, there are many initiatives that could be taken to restore some much-needed balance.

The NCPE itself has called for paid paternity and parental leave on “a use-it-or-lose-it basis”, to be introduced in order to incentivise men to take on more child caring responsibilities. The commission also called for paid parental leave for both women and men, arguing that: “The cost of this measure would be offset by a decrease in the expenditure on childcare services since these services, especially for very small children, are substantially costly.”

Another mitigating measure would be to expand childcare support for working parents, particularly when schools, childcare and respite care services are closed or limited due to COVID-19.

These, and other measures, would go some distance towards closing the existing gender gap. But – as the NCPE also notes – “both policy measures and behavioural changes are necessary to tackle the deep roots of gender inequality”.

It is, of course, up to the government to come up with ‘policy measures’. As for the ‘behavioural changes’ part, however… than can only come from ourselves.