FIIN webinars reflect on the absence of gender-focussed Covid responses

By Sarah Easy

Without a focus on gender, we were never going to get a situation where women and girls were going to be supported and protected in the way that was necessary.

Rosemary Kayess (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disability) 

Despite repeated governmental assurances that ‘we’re all in this together’, rapid policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have disproportionately impacted different sectors of the population, including women. In an effort to unpack the gendered implications of Covid-19, in June 2020, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW, together with FIIN, hosted a three-part webinar series connecting academics, researchers and human rights lawyers from across the globe. The initial webinar set out the value of using a feminist institutionalist framework for analysing the pandemic, and in the following sessions speakers reflected upon the gender dimensions of newly inscribed Covid rules and the role of gendered actors during the pandemic. 

During the second webinar, scholars from Australia, South Africa and Turkey, discussed the “invisibility, predictability and violence” (Professor Louise Chappell, UNSW) experienced by many women in the early stage of the pandemic. With a focus on ‘gendered rules’ and ‘rules with gendered effects’, speakers highlighted rising gender-based violence and inequality as unintended, yet predictable, consequences of social distancing regimes and economic relief policies. In the context of Australian women living with a disability, Rosemary Kayess (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disability) argued that “the inability for the Response Plan to be gender responsive was inevitable, as it feeds into a disability service system that is gender neutral”. Ms Kayess provided vivid examples including practices of forced menstrual suppression and the unavailability of female carers during the seemingly gender-neutral lockdown of congregate care. 

The temporality and informality of gender rules during the pandemic were highlighted in this discussion. Examining the care economy in Australia, Dr Deborah Brennan (UNSW) suggested Australia’s childcare continuity payments were less a progressive shift towards greater gender equality, but more likely a short-term government effort to shore up what has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Given the subsequent withdrawal of these payments, Dr Brennan confirmed “we’re basically back to where we were, with a little softening around the edges.” Both Dr Brennan and Dr Hürcan Alsi Aksoy (the German Institute for International and Security Affairs) stressed that informal rules regarding gender roles have widened the gap in the sexual division of domestic labour during the pandemic in Australia and Turkey respectively. Welfare measures confined to full-time employees also heightened women’s economic insecurity as predominantly casual workers. Gender considerations were similarly absent from South Africa’s governmental ban on alcohol, explained Dr Shireen Hassim (University of Carleton), during which gender-based violence increased significantly. “We all would have predicted this would have been an issue,” Professor Chappell (UNSW) reflected. Speakers lamented that in spite of 50 years of gender scholarship, women were seemingly invisible within governmental responses to Covid-19.

Presenters for Webinar 2

The third webinar of the FIIN Gender and Covid-19 series sought to debunk myths surrounding political leadership, masculinity and merit. The first speaker, Professor Claire Annesley (UNSW), departed from an essentialist focus on ‘male versus female leaders’, characterising leadership styles as institutionally driven. Drawing from theory espoused in Cabinets, Ministers and Gender, Professor Annesley explained that, while men access office through affiliation, women’s entry into politics necessitates “navigating institutional contexts that require more collaboration”. 

A screenshot from Webinar 3

Other discussants noted how mainstream media had been quick to attribute low infection rates in women-led nations to ‘inherently feminine’ caring and risk-averse leadership styles. This exaltation of figures such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern presents a double-edged sword for women’s political advancement: promoting female representation whilst reinforcing traditional stereotypes of women as saviours during turbulent times.

Professor Jennifer Curtin (University of Auckland) provided a nuanced perspective, applauding Ms Ardern’s ability to “straddle the left-right spectrum” and hold together a tense coalition agreement, while Professor Sabine Lang (University of Washington) highlighted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strategic suspension of ‘top down’ federalist policy making, meeting weekly with governors during the pandemic. The speakers concurred that these approaches to managing Covid-19 were informed by legacies of managing prior crises and navigating masculinised environments rather than being ‘innately feminine’ characteristics.

Associate Professor Pedro A.G. dos Santos (Saint John’s University) examined the antithetical ‘strongman approach’ of former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. In regard to both men’s prioritisation of the economy and undermining of health experts, he concluded that they do so not because there is something inherently ‘male’ about this approach, but they can get away with such policy moves more easily because of existing masculine stereotypes. 

“They do so not because they are men, but they can do so because they are men.”

Associate Professor Pedro A.G. dos Santos (Saint John’s University) on the antithetical ‘strongman approach’ of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.

As the webinar series drew to a close, participants expressed concern about the pandemic’s long-term impact on women’s representation. Whilst positive media coverage has promoted women as leaders, additional care responsibilities, strengthening of gender stereotypes and other informal rules were considered as ongoing barriers to their entry into politics. Professor Lang postulated that only if countries took the pandemic as an opportunity to question “this hyper-globalised, hyper-fast and hyper-time intensive work predicament” would greater gender equality been possible. 

Sarah Easy is a human rights lawyer based in Mexico City and research assistant for the Australian Human Rights Institute.

Click here to watch Webinar 2: Rules About Gender and Rules with Gendered Effects

Click here to watch Webinar 3: Masculinity and Merit: Debunking myths of political leadership in the pandemic age

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