Who does the ‘housework of the university’ during a pandemic? The impact of Covid-19 on precarious women working in universities

Several academic publishers in both the UK and US have revealed that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of articles submitted by women has tanked. Recent research indicates that while in lockdown, women in heterosexual relationships continue to provide the bulk of housework and childcare. However, it is not only at home that women do most of the housework; as Ann Oakley argued in 1995, they do it in the university as well. 

There already exists significant gender disparities within universities and most notably with regard to the valuing of work, career progression, pay and working conditions. Cleaners and caterers are typically paid minimum wage and work with few benefits. By contrast, senior managers – mostly men – are paid six-figure salaries. Teaching and the accompanying administrative and pastoral work is considered less prestigious and beneficial to career advancement than research and publishing. Frontline engagement  with students is the housework of the academy and it usually falls at the feet of women, women who are junior, women of colour and especially women who are precariously employed.  

The deeply gendered nature of this work is further exposed when we look to the academic ranks of the casually employed. In the UK, for example, women hold only 39 percent of full-time teaching and research positions but 67 percent of part-time research-only positions.

While part-time teaching is sometimes contracted on a sessional basis (similar to the US adjunct model), in Ireland and the UK there is a marked overreliance on hourly paid work (where workers are not paid per course but typically only per classroom hour) – a form of work that comes without any rights, protection, and is extremely poorly remunerated, with workers in our study often earning less than 10.000 euro (USD 11.000) per year. Official figures typically exclude many hourly paid workers, student workers and those employed through agencies and ‘partner’ corporations.

Our research in Ireland indicates that women experience precarity more acutely than male counterparts and for longer. They are trapped in the most exploitative forms of precarious work – work that earns less than the minimum wage comes with no job security, sick leave, or other entitlements.

Precarious Bloc at Dublin MayDay march, 2015 Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The gendered impact of Covid-19 

As universities tighten budgets, they target the most vulnerable category of workers: the disposable, precarious workers on short-term contracts who can be dismissed without resource-consuming formal processes. Being over-represented in this category, women are heavily impacted. In the UK, many universities chose to dismiss rather than furlough teaching staff. As campuses in both countries were emptied of student populations, catering and cleaning staff – overwhelmingly women on precarious contracts – were made redundant. Furthermore, many hourly-paid workers were fearful of contracting Covid-19 with no sick leave or entitlement to pay should they be unable to cover designated hours.  

Secondly, ongoing gender equality campaigns have come to an abrupt halt. While gender inequality and casualisation were two of the ‘four fights’ UK higher education staff recently striked over, unions are now prioritising workers’ health and safety, fighting redundancies and spiralling workload inflation.  

Thirdly, due to imbalances in workloads and expectations, women – and often those on precarious contracts – have had to shoulder the bulk of the additional work of switching to online teaching. Creating online lectures is extremely labour intensive, yet hourly paid workers are not usually compensated for preparation. Pastoral care work has also increased significantly as those who interface with students must now support increasingly distressed students anxious about the completion of coursework in the middle of a pandemic. When this work falls to hourly paid staff it is often done without remuneration and at a personal expense as institutions do not pay for internet and phone charges, computer or office equipment.  

o photo description available.
Protest action against casualisation Photo courtesy of Third Level Workplace Watch 

The future  

As was the case in the last recession, women may also be disproportionately affected by austerity measures that even the wealthiest universities are likely to implement, such as redundancies, pay reductions, increased workloads and further casualisation.  

In the highly marketized and competitive context of higher education, it is likely that universities decide to offer face-to-face teaching to attract students while maintaining existing levels of fees and profitable campus accommodation occupancy rates. There are indications that come September, academics will be instructed to offer ‘blended learning’, a mix of online and small group face-to-face provision; with increased individual student support to make up for the diminished campus experience. This will increase workloads considerably – likely more than a full move to online teaching. Some institutions have curtailed unfunded research to increase teaching workloads, leaving only those winning large research grants time to conduct research and publish. Given the existing imbalance in the distribution of teaching, and systematic biases against women as well as against Black academics in the allocation of research grants, this will again disproportionately affect women, and Black women even more so. 

Questions also remain as to who will be assigned the administrative coordination and health and safety work necessary for a return to campus. Will this fall to the disproportionately female administrative staff? When campuses reopen will cleaners and caterers be brought back to do more risky work under the same exploitative conditions?  

Covid-19 brings into sharp focus existing injustices that shape the lives of women and especially women of colour, women who are trans, migrants, working-class or from other marginalised communities. The Covid-19 fallout reveals the fragility of the gains for gender equality in the university. It also shows the extensive damage done by decades of casualisation. Yet, in these bleak times there is still hope. Precarious academics are organising in many institutions in the UK and Ireland as the issue is more visible now than ever before.

Going forward, any conversations about gender inequality in the university must centre the most marginalised of women if we hope to affect real change. If we wish to de-gender the housework of the university, we must prioritise fighting for better working conditions for all, not just those in secure academic posts, and resist attempts to further casualise and outsource work in any corner of the university. 

Dr. Theresa O’Keefe is a Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at University College Cork in Ireland. Theresa writes on precarity, feminism in conflict zones, the gendered violence of the state and has published in a range of feminist journals including Feminist Review, International Feminist Journal of Politics and Women’s Studies International Forum. You can follow Theresa on twitter @theresa_okeefe.

Dr. Aline Courtois is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath. Aline writes on precarity, higher education and elite schools and has published in the Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, The British Journal of Educational Studies and other sociology of education journals. You can follow Aline on Twitter at @Aline_Courtois.

As long-term precarious workers, they founded Third Level Workplace Watch in 2013, a collective of precarious academics who came together to resist casualisation in Irish higher education institutions. Their joint publications on academic precarity can be read here (open access) and here (paywalled). 

What Can The Experiences Of Young Muslim Women Teach Us About Domination, Power, And Resistance?

Oppressed. Fundamentalist. Unassimilated. Voiceless Victims. Conservative.

These are deeply entrenched ideas about Muslim women that frame what we hear and see in the media in Western societies. Muslim women in the media headlines are often represented  as the “victim of men’s violence.”

For example, the well-known writer and Somali-Dutch American, Ayaan Hirsan Ali, was embraced by right wing politicians as a brave hero after renouncing her faith and criticizing the West for not doing enough to “save” Muslim women from Muslim men’s misogyny.

Ghazala Khan was reproached by President Trump for not talking about her deceased son, a former Army Captain at the Democratic National Convention, because “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” as he assumed both her faith and husband didn’t allow her to speak.

My research in Gender & Society follows an untold story of Muslim women. Many of them are leftist, smart, politically astute, and powerfully working at the helm of social movement organizations for justice and social change.

My research provides the story of 75 young women involved in social justice organizing in the United Kingdom and the United States during the intensity of President Trump’s Muslim Ban and the UK’s passage of Brexit. These respondents were, fighting against a fierce racist climate in xenophobic times. They are among a generation of young Muslim women born to stateless Palestinian exiles, working class Pakistani immigrants, Somali refugees, and immigrant Arab and Black communities.

While incredibly diverse, the thread my research identifies is their collective political organizing and commitment to social justice. They have been involved in the decolonize movement and solidarity struggles. They fight against gendered Islamophobia, state violence, war, and surveillance. They fight for immigrant rights and racial and gender justice. They organize on university campuses, in the community, in mosques, civil rights organizations and nonprofits, and alongside other grassroots social justice struggles.

The young Muslim women activists that I interviewed made it apparent that they are simultaneously experiencing and resisting multi-faceted challenges in their lives. My research shows how Muslim women’s position in society provides an important and unique place to explore how they contest power and domination. For instance, in response to the US Muslim Ban, women activists were an integral part of confronting this new terrain of state sanctioned Islamophobia. For example, Rasmiah, a socialist and Palestinian activist was arrested while challenging the detaining of an immigrant, Iraqi woman with breast cancer as she was to de-board a plane at the Los Angeles International airport, demonstrating collective solidarity with immigrant Muslim women globally as they oppose unjust state policy.

In the UK, Muslim women activists in my sample opposed PREVENT, a national counter-terrorism security mandate. They were core organizers in kickstarting the “Students not Suspects” campaign that contested the widespread surveillance and criminalization of students, which was commonplace on university campuses, a form of political tracking of students’ viewpoints. Their organizing also took on new meaning when they confronted public attacks on women wearing hijab, and the political smearing of Muslim women activists in the media.

While I was interviewing Sana, a National Student Union organizer who also organized with a community organization representing mosques in London, she pointed out that “we can only be victims of sexism, but never racism.”

Sana discusses the dominant portrayal of Muslim women as worthy victims to be “saved” by the West only when it is from Muslim men’s patriarchy. However, this pervasive idea obscures the racism they routinely experience within British (and US) society. Without wanting to lose sight of how they experienced multiple forms of domination, a collective of Muslim women student activists started a campaign in the UK, that focused on organizing a gendered Islamophobia tour, where Muslim women could articulate their experiences at the structural intersections of racism and sexism.

Experiences of inequality permeate Muslim women’s lives but are also distinct based on their diverse backgrounds. Particular experiences vary depending upon one’s racialization, immigration background, socioeconomic status, and whether she wears the hijab/niqab, among other factors. There is no singular, monolithic Muslim woman. There is no one story.

These are 75 compelling stories of the complex lives of young Muslim women activists living in the US and the UK. My research reports their hard work, frustrations, political analyses, ethical disobedience, and hopes for social change. Their experiences and insights inform us of new ways to understand domination, resistance and social justice.

Dr. Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. During this research, she served as an Honorary Research Associate at the University of College London, Centre for Muslim Education and Research. She publishes on the topics of racialized surveillance and counterterrorism, gendered Islamophobia and state violence, and capitalism and the privatization of the domestic War on Terror. To find out more about her research and teaching, please visit Dr. Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson. You can also follow @DrSabrina_Ali on Twitter.

Gendered COVID-19 Research

Almost immediately on the outbreak of COVID-19 and the world-wide spread of the coronavirus that causes it, research on how gender matters began. 

It appeared that men had a higher death rate from Covid-19 than women and were more likely to develop a severe illness. Why would men be more at risk?

Possibilities that involve their behavior include higher rate of smoking and less attention to washing hands. Most of the touted reasons were about chromosomes and hormones. The theory used to explain men’s higher risk is that women have two X chromosomes which carry 2,000 genes that interact with women’s cells. Cells can use genes on one X chromosome to destroy invading viruses, and genes on the other X chromosome to kill infected cells. Also, XX chromosomes produce estrogens which stimulate immunological responses, while testosterone seems to suppress them. The protective effect of estrogens led to trials of administering estrogen to men and post-menopausal women with COVID-19 as possible means to lessen the severity of the illness. 

An entirely different set of research studies focus on the effects of the lockdown that keep workers home and school closings that keep children at home. Employers had to adopt flexible work schedules and telecommuting for men and women employees, a policy for which many women have long fought for.

Another result of the lockdown is the availability of fathers for child care and home schooling. Where mothers work outside the home, as medical providers or grocery and pharmacy employees, fathers have to became the main child caregivers.  

Reports on sharing housework and child care by heterosexual cohabiting partners working from home were mixed. In one study men partners claimed to be doing half the home-schooling while women with heterosexual partners claimed that they were doing 80 percent.

Another study of 1060 heterosexual couples on their early COVID-19 experiences found an increase in sharing housework from 26 percent to 41 percent; similar results were reported for shared care of children. If men really do more during the shelter at home months, the continuance of such behavior would be a positive outcome of the pandemic

A serendipitous gender effect was that women were in the leadership role in countries that most successfully combated the coronavirus. The eight countries with the best outcomes of controlling cases and deaths thus far all had women leaders who acted early and decisively: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hong Kong, Namibia, Nepal and Singapore. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, also led strong and successful responses to the virus. There are other countries governed by women that have not controlled the coronavirus so well. What was different about the more successful women leaders?  A comparison of the two groups of women leaders might indicate what leadership skills mattered in this crisis. Leadership styles are often culturally gendered. Men leaders are prone to using war metaphors with the coronavirus as the enemy to be attacked aggressively and vanquished. The more successful women leaders focused on communal efforts and careful planning that demanded shared long-term  sacrifice, a leadership style that is considered “feminine.” 

We need more research to understand what leadership style works in national emergencies such as pandemics. Comparisons need to be made within gender as well as between them. Women leaders are not all alike, nor do they all use what is culturally considered a more consensus or “feminine” leadership style. More importantly, men too can adopt “feminine” leadership styles if that is what research tells us what most efficacious at keeping us all alive.  

Adapted from The New Gender Paradox: Fragmentation and Persistence of the Gender Binary, Polity Books, forthcoming. 

Judith Lorber is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School, CUNY. She is the author of Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics, Paradoxes of Gender, and Women Physicians: Careers, Status and Power. With Lisa Jean Moore, she is the author of Gendered Bodies: Feminist Perspectives and Gender and the Social Construction of Illness. Judith Lorber is the Founding Editor of Gender & Society.  

Women’s work: How gender facilitates investment deals in risky markets

Photo provided by Yu & Hoang

When you think of women in the male-dominated finance and investment industry, what comes to mind? In the U.S., media and scholarship has popularized two possibilities: as either subordinate workers trying to fight gender pay gaps, sexually hostile work environments, and the lack of female leadership, or as service workers that provide men with entertainment and “arm candy.” But this is an incomplete story about the role of women—and the importance of gender—in the male-dominated investment industry. Gender plays an active role in the facilitation of how money moves internationally—not simply as a passive accessory to men or as an identity that shapes women’s experience of inequality.

To understand the role of gender in the investment world, Hoang studied foreign investors trying to secure deals in the risky emerging market of Vietnam. Global capital that ultimately settles in Vietnam faces a local market characterized by blurred lines between government and private industry. As a result, foreign investors in Vietnam must rely on local government bureaucrats who play a large discretionary role in granting business deals. To facilitate favorable deals from local bureaucrats, investors must ultimately finesse relationships with government officials.

Women and Whiskey

How do investors create and maintain these trusting relationships with local officials who can make or break their business deals? As one respondent put it, “a lot of beautiful women and whiskey.” In interviews with 300 respondents—including representatives of investment companies, local entrepreneurs, and attorneys and bankers—the 60 people Yu & Hoang interviewed that discussed this process were exceptionally up front about the role of gendered entertainment in facilitating investor-bureaucrat relationships. Male investors develop and sustain these relationships with one another in entertainment spaces filled with women, ranging from holding meetings in bars filled with young women to sex parties in private homes. But while respondents describe this reliance on these spaces as par for the course in Vietnam, not everyone enjoyed or agreed with this way of investing. We interviewed people who differed on how they reacted to this reliance on women’s bodies: those who went along with it, those who tried to reform it, and those that opted out.

Photo provided by Yu & Hoang

Those who maintain this system of using women and whiskey see value in how gendered relations facilitate business deals. They see this status quo as involving the appropriate role for men and women in the industry, and the use of women’s bodies as a powerful tool in relationship-based deal-making. In contrast, there are those that try to reform this system. They try to change the reliance of trust building in gendered spaces without fundamentally leaving the industry. For example, these people either find markets with women-owned businesses or push their companies to find relationship-building activities that are less reliant on the presence of women’s bodies, such as golfing.

There are also those who simply leave the system. They defect, exit the industry entirely and seek alternate investment strategies. Those who leave seek financing models that have no government oversight and therefore do not require relationships with government officials who broker deals in these gendered settings, which ironically often means utilizing offshore investment strategies. For example, several people we interviewed discussed entering the technology sector instead of the historically gendered entertainment-dependent real estate sector. They see themselves as part of a new, younger generation of entrepreneurs and investors pushing the way of doing business in a new direction.

We expect that the whiskey and women deal-making system is not confined to the case of Vietnam. As we read stories of American financier Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual crimes and reexamine scenes in films (such Wolf of Wall Street) depicting the role of women and parties in the investment industry, the women-based brokerage of business deals is likely to occur in established markets as well, it may even be a key characteristic of capitalism across the globe.

Lilly Yu is a PhD Student in Sociology & Social Policy at Harvard University she is also the Wiener PhD Scholar in Poverty and Justice.
Kimberly Kay Hoang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago. She is also the Director of Global Studies at UChicago and the author of Dealing in Desire. 

Fashioning Masculinity in Confinement

Image from Pixel

Clothing matters when we’re out in the world. The fabrics and silhouettes we wear each day help us establish our personal and professional identities. Wearing clothing that is deemed “appropriate” in distinct spaces provides access to jobs, networks and, for many of us, respect and dignity.

In my research published in Gender and Society, I interviewed men of all types, across a range of ages, races, sexualities, occupations. I wanted to understand how their clothes challenged or reinforced cultural ideas about masculinity. My interviews took place in men’s homes where they showed me their clothes and described their memories of them.

When my participants opened up their closets each morning, they asked themselves a series of questions: Who were they going to meet? What activities were they going to do? What spaces did they plan on visiting?  All of these men picked clothing that best allowed them to display their understanding of dominant masculine norms. They believed the clothes they wore would help them get the rewards they sought at the events and outings they attended, or protect them from being harassed and attacked.

All these interviews were conducted before COVID-19.  Many of us now do not go to different physical spaces each day but are primarily confined to our homes. Our social interactions are limited to Zoom. In this new social world, how might my participants decide what to wear each day? And what might be the impact of their decisions on the ways in which they trouble and reinforce masculine ideals?

Photo from Pixels

Our digital interactions present all of us with a new set of considerations when we open up our closets each morning. Our colleagues and friends will no longer observe our fully dressed bodies but instead primarily view our shoulders and faces. This narrowed frame poses two major consequences. Given my research focuses on men and masculinity, I will speculate about men specifically.

First, clothing that adorns the top halves of men’s bodies might take on greater importance.

Some men might still opt to wear a shirt and tie to establish their class position, but as the pandemic rages on, they might loosen up their workwear. As men work from home, they are likely to be multitasking. They work but also cook meals, homeschool kids, cope with anxiety. Perhaps wearing a suite becomes impractical while multi-taking, even if that includes video meetings.

Second, hair and skin might take on a heightened role.

Kirsten Barber charts professional white-collar men’s consumption of high-end salon services—from hair colouring to brow tweezing. Barber finds that these men engage in beauty work to construct their “professional” identity. For them, keeping their hair coiffed, browsshaped and skin smooth establishes masculine power. A virtual world might mean that these services become more important for the construction of middle-class masculinity, as stylists now offer virtual appointments to guide patrons through hair coloring and brow tweezing.

Beauty work might become even more important because participants now see their faces during each and every digital meeting. It becomes easy to focus on how their cheek bones, complexions and eyebrows appear on the screen. For many men, observations about their faces might be a new discovery because beauty work unlike body work is traditionally gendered feminine and avoided by men.      

Make-up might take on a new role for establishing a professional masculine identity in a Zoom-centered world, but men of color and Black men in particular will have limited options. Men who are balding might become more susceptible to hair growth pill subscription boxes designed to reduce hair loss and older men to anti-aging potions. Even Zoom now offers digital filters to instantly reduce the appearance of winkles.

Yet the loosening up of workwear could provide benefits. Mainstream menswear is designed for thin and non-disabled bodies. Clothing patterns are scaled up for larger sizes or adapted for physically disabled wearers. As a result, clothing often fails to comfortably fit fat and disabled men, if it’s available at all. They are often forced to spend hundreds of dollars on custom clothes for office jobs and other formal events. But in a digital world where clothes matter less, these men might no longer need formal and fashionable clothes to shore up masculine power in certain social spaces.

Perhaps some femme and queer men will feel less pressure to code switch. If they are no longer commuting around the city, they face less risk of violence. They might just feel freer and safer to wear whatever they want, including heels all day long.

While this pandemic has shifted how men dress each day, it is unlikely that the role of appearance has changed. The difference between this moment and before COVID-19 is that the contents of men’s bathroom vanities might become more important than the contents of their bedroom closets when it comes to displaying a masculine identity.

What I find intriguing is this shift from the full body to the face in our self-presentation.  This may reduce ableism, fat phobia and other oppressions based on visible cues because others only see one’s shoulders and face. Clothes don’t matter as much now. But the deep assumptions and attitudes that keep inequities structurally alive are not being challenged. They remain in place, just outside the purview of the Zoom frame. Some men might benefit in the short-term, but when they meet in-person once again, dominant masculine ideals could become even more entrenched because digital spaces have masked, not transformed, existing forms of discrimination.

Ben Barry is Chair and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). His research explores masculinities and fashion at the intersections of fat and disability.

Feminism in Action in Argentina’s Carnival

Photo by elojomurguero

Argentina’s feminist movement is gathering critical mass. Since 2016, feminists have protested the nation’s staggeringly high rates of femicide (i.e., the intentional killing of women simply because they are female), domestic violence, and lack of abortion rights.

Hundreds of thousands of women have gathered in Argentina’s streets each year, marching under the slogan #niunamenos (not one woman less). The campaign to legalize abortion has become so widespread and popular that it has been nicknamed “The Green Tide” because green kerchiefs worn by activists appear everywhere.

The abortion debate is very public, with graffiti on walls, candlelight vigils with chanted slogans, and even bubbling up on kitschy and usually apolitical daytime television talk shows. The movement’s impact has also been felt in the halls of government. Even under the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri, a bill legalizing abortion passed Argentina’s lower house of Congress in July of 2018 before being narrowly defeated in the Senate. Macri’s successor, the more progressive Alberto Fernandez, has promised to support abortion legalization. Definitive legal change in support of abortion access seems imminent.

Feminist language and ideas have diffused into popular consciousness. Young Argentines, particularly in the capital city of Buenos Aires, are increasingly embracing “inclusive language,” substituting the gender-neutral vowel -e for the more traditional -a and -o endings to mark gender in the Spanish language.

They are protesting the Spanish language’s grammatical conventions of rendering women and non-binary people invisible. Terms like “patriarchy” and “deconstruct” have escaped the halls of academe and taken up residence in informal speech. Argentina is experiencing a sea change in its gender politics. While feminist organizations, political parties and activist groups have obviously played central roles in this change, our research found change also being sown in a less obvious informal institution, the Carnival street theatre tradition known as murga.

Murga has long been a space for populist politics. Each year in February, murgas produce a show that includes dancing, drumming, poetry recitation, and bawdy satirical songs that poke fun at politicians and powerful figures. Murgas have historically been male-dominated spaces in which women were either excluded entirely or relegated to secondary roles as dancers.

Recently, however, women have begun to play more central roles: writing lyrics, singing, and playing drums. These women are now bringing feminist demands for inclusion and equality. But murgueras (female murga practitioners) have not only brought their feminist perspectives to this traditionally patriarchal institution. More surprisingly, they also found ways to make that same institution practice feminism.

The Research

Our article shows how feminist murgueras contest patriarchal norms and practices both inside and outside of their Carnival groups. We studied these Carnival groups by participating in them, observing them, and interviewing participants. We found that murga performances begin to move beyond gender stereotypes and expectations, to transform behavior that used to typify masculinity, and be done only by men, into behavior that can be done by women or men and doesn’t exude masculinity or femininity.

The Carnival groups are effective at feminist politics because such spaces are neither explicitly nor exclusively feminist spaces. Activists in these spaces are more effective there because they have previously shared their knowledge and skills in women’s only spaces. Feminists use such women’s spaces because their male counterparts had discouraged them from developing appropriate skills in mixed-gender settings.

Our interviewees told us about two of these women-exclusive spaces:

1.) Murgueras Independientes, is a group of women who attend feminist protest marches as murgueras, wearing brightly colored satin costumes and dancing effusive murga steps in what they characterized as a “joyful rebellion.”

2.) The second is a workshop where women taught each other the rhythms and performance practices of the bombo con platillo, the bass drum with suspended cymbal that is seen as the iconic representation of murga, and has been most jealously guarded as a male-exclusive practice in many murgas. These women’s-only spaces allow murgueras to share strategies, learn percussion skills, and gain confidence which they can then take back with them to their mixed-gender murgas.

These feminist activities have led murgas to become community-based youth organizations where gender norms and patriarchal power structures are being disrupted. Murgas are also now serving as crucial spaces to share women’s health knowledge. Feminist murgueras engage men and uncommitted women in discussions of gender identity, patriarchal power relations, and gender-inclusive language. They also lobby for changes in patriarchal power dynamics in the distribution of material goods and creative control within their murgas. Finally, these activists have developed new approaches for holding men accountable for gender violence, insuring that murgas no longer accept abusers’ participation.

These innovative and multi-faceted feminist strategies demonstrate how a joyful and utopian feminism can be integrated into popular youth culture, even in traditionally patriarchal spaces.

Julia McReynolds-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston. Her research focuses on feminist activism and abortion rights in Argentina. Her research has been published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.

Michael S. O’Brien is an Associate Professor of ethnomusicology at the College of Charleston. He has been conducting ethnographic field research on music and cultural politics in Argentina since 2003, including work on tango, folk music, and murga porteña. His recent publications include articles in the journals EthnomusicologyMusic and Politics, and MUSICultures.

Revolution Unstalled?: The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Domestic Division of Labor in Hungary

Photo credit: Balogh Zoltan/ MTI

Parents of small children all over the globe must be extremely exhausted by now.  Since the COVID-19 pandemic induced closure of schools and childcare facilities in mid-March, parents have had to shoulder a vast amount of domestic and care work alone: without the contribution of state institutions, private child care providers, and kindly grandparents. 

Whether for wages or for free, childcare and domestic work are primarily organized and done by women.  The domestic gender division of labor has shifted slightly in the past thirty years as women on average reduced their workload and some men have started to pitch in some of the time.  But the changes have been small and uneven across social groups and countries.  Still, women in most countries spend at least twice as much time as men doing unpaid care work.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic change this or will it imprint existing inequalities in the domestic division of labor even more deeply onto the social fabric?  On the one hand, during the lockdown men are spending a great deal more time at home.  This could allow those who haven’t had the chance yet to develop a more intimate familiarity with the contents of the diaper bag or the operation of the washing machine.  At the same time, early projections of both the International Labour Organization  and the European Commission suggest that women are more likely to lose their paid jobs during the crisis, so perhaps they will take up the domestic slack instead?  Will then the crisis exacerbate the unequal division of care work or could it alleviate it?

In order to shed light on these old-new patterns of the gender division of labor, we conducted an online survey in Hungary between 6 and 14 April, 2020. Since Hungary closed schools and childcare facilities on March 13, 2020 and instituted serious lockdown measures soon thereafter, by the time of our survey our respondents had been coping with their new circumstances for 3 weeks. Our sample is representative of high school and college educated Hungarian internet users who raise children under 14 years of age in their households. 

In recent years Hungary introduced a great number of pronatalist measures along with an ideology which depicts women as mothers and wives first and as useful but strictly complementary participants in the labor market second. Hungary is thus the last country where we would expect to see a shift in the gender division of labor during the crisis- yet this is exactly what we found.


We focused our research on couples. They typically had 2 children at home and almost half were raising at least one child under the age of 6.  Most parents were working for wages at the time they answered the questionnaire, and 47% of women and 31% of men were doing so from home.

We asked respondents to tell us whether or not their share of various domestic and childcare tasks has increased since the closure of schools and childcare institutions.  Respondents typically overestimate their contributions to such questions, especially when the overall work burden has clearly increased.  But we were interested in differences among men and women in how they perceive this change.

Among at least high school educated heterosexual parents, men were significantly more likely to say that their share of domestic, child and elderly care work has increased since the closure of schools, while women claimed that their share remained stable or even decreased.  In terms of childcare, for example, 45% of men felt that they were doing a bigger share of the work during the crisis than they did earlier and only 38% of women claimed that they did.  This was true for domestic work and elderly care as well. The findings remained when we compared men and women who were similar in a number of important ways:  education level, working for wages, age, urban or rural residence and the number of children.

The picture is less rosy when we consider the fact that despite men’s increased share of household labor, they were twice as likely as women to feel no tension between their paid and their care work responsibilities, while many more women than men reported that they had to multitask in their home office.  Five times more women than men claimed that it would be helpful if their partner did a greater share of the household and child care work.

Take away

Contrary to expectations about women’s disproportionately increased care burden in academic and popular media, men seem to be stepping in, even in a country where neither the state nor employers are especially supportive of a more gender balanced domestic division of labor.  The majority of the unpaid care work is still done by women and this work burden has increased sharply.   But the inequality of the distribution of family work – at least among people with at least high school education – has decreased, according to both men and women in our sample.

Men’s participation in domestic duties is influenced not only by their social class, gender role attitudes and the national-institutional context but also by immediate circumstances. The sheer physical presence, opportunity, and possibly the emotional experience of emergency and need also matter.

We do not know if these small steps towards gender equality are long-lasting or will end as soon as societies return to some semblance of normalcy, especially if women have more trouble finding paid work in the aftermath of the crisis.  Yet these results at least represent a glimmer of hope on an otherwise rather bleak social and economic horizon.

Eva Fodor is a sociologist teaching in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University.  CEU funded this project.

Aniko Gregor works as a sociologist at ELTE University, Budapest, Faculty of Social Sciences. Currently, she is a research fellow at Freie Universität, Berlin.

Julia Koltai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence and Assistant Professor of Sociology at ELTE University. Currently she serves as a visiting professor at the Central European University.

Eszter Kováts is a PhD student in Political Science, ELTE University, Budapest.

Taking Risk, Taking Care During COVID-19

Early research on the social impacts of COVID-19 reveals that men and women are experiencing the same pandemic very differently.

Women’s jobs, for instance, may be disproportionately impacted by the impending recession. This, along with daycare and school closures that have demanded more of women’s time, suggests that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing gender inequalities in both the domestic and public spheres.

Our ongoing qualitative, longitudinal research with college students and their families sheds light on the gender differences in attitudes toward risk and experiences of isolation. Since April 1st, we have interviewed forty participants (26 identify as women, 13 as men, and 1 as non-binary) between the ages of 18-68 (median age of 23-years-old) to capture their changing experiences at three points in time over several weeks.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary findings from our research indicate that men are not experiencing the same levels of stress and anxiety that have come to characterize the daily lives of women in our sample. Further, women are bearing an alarming share of the additional household labor and unpaid care work generated by this pandemic.

These findings tell a troubling tale of how COVID-19 is reinforcing existing systems and patterns of gender inequality by pushing women deeper into traditionally feminine roles. Simultaneously, men’s disavowal of the risks associated with COVID-19 reflects masculine ideals premised on confidence, power, and strength.

One of the most striking features of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rapidly shifting backdrop against which individuals are receiving information and assessing their personal risk of exposure to the virus.

As the U.S. struggles to control and manage COVID-19, new data on transmission, vulnerability, and mortality are updated almost in real-time. Although men and women assess similar risks of personally contracting COVID-19, they substantively diverge in their interpretation of—and corresponding response to—perceived risk.

Many women in our sample recounted narratives of intense anxiety, responsibility, and uncertainty. Filene, for example, lives with her mother and has stopped working as a market cashier as a cautionary measure. She expressed enormous distress about the future, stating,

“I don’t know if it’s going to end. I don’t know what to expect next. Will it destroy the earth? Will I get to see another year? Will I even get to see my mom through this thing? Where is it going? What is going to happen?”

In contrast, the majority of men reported personal efforts to follow public health recommendations but otherwise seem unperturbed by COVID-19, even when they evaluate their personal risk to be high. Our findings suggest that the current crisis is reinforcing gender norms that position men as confident, unfazed, and stoic.

Percy, for instance, works in a hospital, where he is responsible for sanitizing rooms. Percy said that he strictly follows safety protocols at the hospital, but outside of work, he inconsistently wears a mask in public because he thinks “it’s just a little outlandish” and that it “looks funny sometimes.”

The men in our sample recognize the risks associated with COVID-19, but their awareness of these risks does not translate into the deep-seated distress that women are experiencing. The tension between the men’s simultaneous awareness and disavowal of the risk is captured well in Arnold’s interview, during which he described the numerous hygiene practices he has adopted during the pandemic, but then emphatically noted that he feels the media have amplified the dangers of COVID-19, which he likened to the flu. 

Women’s experiences of fear and anxiety are partly driven by their relentless commitment to care work. For example, Valencia is responsible for cooking and shopping for her fiancé and mother, and she reported being on the brink of panic attacks when she contemplates the loss of her loved ones to COVID-19. Her narrative stands in stark contrast to Cameron’s, in which he expressed worry about his elderly parents’ refusal to stay home, but at the same time, reported being in a place of acceptance about their eventual positive diagnoses. He calmly stated that their contraction of COVID-19 was a matter of “when” and not “if.”

The salience of unpaid care work in the women’s lives is all the more marked because our sample consists of mostly young adults. Even though most are not wives or mothers, the women in our sample have become deeply affected by conventional gendered expectations centered on domestic labor and caregiving.

For example, Megan is tasked with helping her father file for unemployment during the pandemic. In addition, while her mother is at work, Megan must “cook and clean and still try and fit homework in.”  Similarly, Liniksha noted that she is entirely responsible for her younger brother’s care, even though they both live with their parents, an uncle, and an older sister. Although she was his primary caregiver even before the pandemic, Liniksha explained that she is now solely responsible for his homeschooling as well, which has been challenging. These narratives underscore the extent to which the pandemic has pushed women deeper into caregiving roles, even while other demands on their time and energy have not relented.

Our ongoing research is revealing a clear pattern of gender differences in attitudes toward and responses to risk and care work that have significant short- and long-term impacts. More immediately, men’s relaxed attitudes toward contracting COVID-19 may encourage behavior that increases their own—and effectively, their families’—risk of disease. In the long term, as the U.S. confronts the possibility that COVID-19 may permanently alter our social landscape, our findings highlight the need to examine critically the novel (and troubling) ways in which women are becoming entrenched in traditional domestic responsibilities.

Dr. Catherine Tan is an incoming (Fall 2020) Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Vassar College. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University. Her research has been published in Social Science & Medicine, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Genetics in Medicine. You can find her online at www.CatherineDTan.com and follow her on Twitter @catherineoscopy.
Dr. Janani Umamaheswar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Pennsylvania State University and her research has been published in journals such as Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, Civic Sociology, Women & Criminal Justice, and Punishment & Society. You can find her online at www.jananiumamaheswar.com and follow her on Twitter @JananiU.

The current pandemic: what does gender have to do with it?

Photo by Managing Editor Mary Ann Vega

The current pandemic: what does gender have to do with it?

This is a call for insightful pieces for the Gender & Society blog.

Arundhati Roy has written that ‘the pandemic is a portal” and social scientists need to be documenting what is happening now and also envisioning a future beyond “getting back to normal” since normal was already riddled with inequality.

Do you have empirical evidence about how the gender structure is being impacted by, or impacting, the current global health crises?

Do you have a theoretically informed or evidence based proposal for a better future, one that embodies more equality?

If so, submit a blog post to Gender & Society. Blog posts should be 900 words or less and written for a non-academic audience.

Please send your blog posts to gendsoc@uic.edu ATTN: Blog Post Series

Do Transgender Identity Claims Reinforce Social Inequality in India?

Photo provided by Liz Mount

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen increasing attention to transgender issues. In fact, we’ve learned that people all over the world are publicly identifying themselves as transgender. On the face of it, this seems an entirely positive trend if we assume that claiming a trans identity allows people to fully express themselves. However, my research on transgender identities in India complicates this. I find that trans identities in India are used by working-class gender non-conforming (GNC) people to align themselves with middle-class status. I show that transgender identities are used to reflect different class statuses and thus have become incorporated into systems of economic inequality.

India is an interesting place to study trans identities because South Asia is home to a well-known group of GNC people, hijras. Hijras are feminine-presenting GNC people who have been widely recognized (though also very marginalized) in South Asia for centuries. Hijras are usually included under the transgender “umbrella.” However, I met many working-class GNC people who identify themselves as trans women and make a point of distancing themselves from hijras. I became curious about how and why trans women distinguish themselves from hijras. To explore this question, I conducted an 18-month ethnographic study in Bangalore, India. During this time, I interacted with groups of transgender women, hijras, NGO workers and sexual rights activists. I have also analyzed current media representations of hijras and transgender women.

Hijras and/vs. Transgender Women

Hijras are feminine-presenting GNC people who often run away as teenagers. Many report abuse from family and community members due to their gender expression and/or perceived sexuality. They come to live and work with others “like them” in communal households known as hamaams. Because they face discrimination finding employment, hijras often engage in sex work and soliciting money. Despite activism and outreach by NGOs over the past 25 years, hijras are stigmatized and marginalized.

Throughout India, there are also groups of working-class, feminine-presenting GNC people who identify as transgender women. These transgender women often claim to be “independent” from hijra groups, yet most have connections to hijra groups. Despite this, these trans women work to raise awareness of their transgender identities by emphasizing the differences between themselves and hijras.

The Findings

You might imagine that all trans women would be interested in challenging negative stereotypes about gender non-conformity, especially the abuse faced by hijras. However, the transgender women I spoke with are at pains to prove their difference from hijras. As they claim transgender identities, these trans women distance themselves from stereotypes of hijras. One way they do this is by emphasizing that their identities are respectable, in contrast to stigmatized hijra identities. In this process, these trans women align themselves with social ideals of middle-class womanhood. They do this as they seek access to the privileges enjoyed by middle-class cisgender women. In doing so, trans women implicitly support the marginalization of hijras.

The transgender women I spoke to draw boundaries between themselves and hijras through adopting middle-class status markers like education and claiming to be “modern.” One day, I asked a young, shy feminine-presenting person wearing a deep green sari if she identifies as a hijra. Before she could answer, Deepa, a trans woman in her 20s, jumped in, explaining, “the people who are…living in the hamaams, following the tradition of the hamams, they are called hijras. She’s a modern girl; she’s educated, she’s literate. She’s called transgender.”

I found it surprising that trans woman choose to align themselves with middle-class womanhood rather than create an allyship with hijras. This may be because some visibly GNC people now work in sexual rights NGOs and these “office” jobs have opened up opportunities for GNC people to work in respectable, middle-class employment. The trans women I spoke with seek dignified employment. Suma, a trans woman in her early 30s, explains, “see, that’s my dream. Like, everyone has to work, but dignity is very important. Begging and sex work [i.e. occupations hijras do] are not bringing you any dignity.” These working-class trans women’s desires for respectable employment are also connected to their desire for middle-class status.

Working in an office is believed to be “empowering” for middle-class women. When this opportunity is open to working-class transgender women, they can imagine closing the gap between themselves and respectable middle-class womanhood. Kanika, a trans woman in her 40s who once identified as a hijra, explained that she doesn’t like sex work and this was her least favorite aspect of being a hijra. She earnestly explained, “I want to be like normal girls, study and get a job, like normal girls,” a reference to the options available to “normal” middle-class girls. Kanika made a point of aligning herself with middle-class femininity, assuring me that she’s a very peaceful person who “do[es]n’t like to get into any conflicts.” Among hijras, she explained, “you have to be rude, rough, it’s like that,” which she couldn’t cope with because she’s “totally feminine.”

Media representations depict these new middle-class transgender women as enjoying newfound opportunity, promise, and social progress. In contrast, hijras are connected to stigmatized employment, poverty and overall “backward[ness]”. The trans woman/hijra distinction is perhaps most apparent in an online media campaign from 2016, aptly entitled “I am Not a Hijra.” The 16 photos in this series picture feminine-presenting GNC people holding signs that claim trans* identities and emphasize their difference from stereotypes of hijras. Like the trans women I spoke with, these trans people emphasize how their employment (and, thus, class) status serves as a key marker of their difference from hijras.

Photo provide by Liz Mount

The Takeaways

For the trans women I spoke with, identifying as transgender, rather than hijra, is a strategy they hope will help them move into to the middle-class. It is their strategy for upward mobility. Because transgender identity has become aligned with middle-class status, it is attractive for working-class GNC people seeking to move up the class ladder. These trans women’s claims that “I am not a hijra” are actually claims for the kinds of social benefits that middle-class cisgender women receive. I show that seemingly progressive new identities can also support inequality among gender non-conforming people. .

Liz Mount is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Flagler College. Her research examines gender, sexuality, and social change in India and the US. Her work can be found forthcoming in Gender & Society and Development in Practice, and published in The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Contemporary South Asia, and Teaching Sociology.