by M.A. Anna Paula de Moraes Bennech

Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

We already had a crisis before Corona,” stated Prof. Dr. Barbara Thiessen in her online talk about social problems in the care profession field on November 25th, 2020. The talk was hosted by the Working Group on Gender (Arbeitskreis Gender – AK Gender) at the Institute of Political Science and Sociology from the University of Würzburg.

By pointing to the gender care gap’s previous existence, Prof. Thiessen’s provocation corresponds to the AK Gender’s motto: “same but different – what role does gender play?” The COVID-19 pandemic has just brought social inequality discrepancies, such as race, class, and gender, to newspapers’ front page along with the updates on the virus’ statistics. Hence, the choice to dedicate the 2020/2021 semester to discuss “Gender & Corona.” The AK Gender’s purpose is to promote research, reflection, and debate about persisting gender-related inequalities, encompassing role stereotypes, and their social impact. The AK Gender aims to favor an interdisciplinary approach; thus, the guest lecturer was Prof. Thiessen, whose research focus is gender-sensitive social work. She is currently the Vice Dean at the Faculty of Social Work from the Hochschule Landshut in Germany. 

First, Prof. Thiessen stated that the care theory posits care as conditio humana because it is an inherent aspect of human existence and development itself. Here, care consists of mental, physical, individual, and institutional elements. It is a collective activity directed not only to people but also to objects, such as the environment and social institutions. Therefore, care embraces private relationships, on the private market, as well as between state and citizens.

Second, when it comes to caring work, a question pops up: work or love? Here, Prof. Thiessen highlighted the difference between caring for [informal or professional care] and caring about [emotional connection]. From a gender viewpoint, there is the diffusion of a stereotype that overlaps the two perspectives. As patriarchal structures position women as belonging to the domestic sphere and in charge of family caring and emotional duties, care work is considered their natural responsibility or even their emotional vocation. In this sense, there is an invisibilization of female care work within families and society in a broader approach. Put differently, one might perceive care as inherent to the female social role, hence not distinguishing the “work” attached to the “care.” Considering this background, Prof. Thiessen inquired, “what changes when care work is paid? How is emotionality handled in care work then? How important are gender dimensions in this context? What other dimensions are relevant?” 

It is also crucial to consider that care is not bound to fixed forms. The core difference is in the level of formalization, as its activities can be public or private, formal or informal. Moreover, care work is based on interactions and takes place within certain framework conditions, with multiple personal, social, and economic resources available. Consequently, the care setting comprises a relationship between caregivers and care receivers in environments that reproduce asymmetries of power, and therefore are vulnerable to violence. In other words, care work involves power, justice, and responsibility.

Care is a dual concept since it simultaneously has a private and a public facet. It embodies an inner attitude and refers to interpersonal caring activities and, at the same time, concerns socially critical areas, such as the health and social work systems. In this sense, the care debate aims to upgrade and politicize caring practices within the system of care relations, considering the essential basis of the social positionality of gender relations and the precondition of the capitalist economy, which indicates a lack of an adequate framework.

Third, these questions get a whole new nuance set under the COVID-19 pandemic lenses, as one might already have thought. However, it does not happen because Coronavirus brought along brand new gender problems, but instead sheds an intense light on the existing ones. For instance, due to the COVID-19 contention measures, the lockdown experiences forced the families to reorganize their routines inside their homes. In this context, according to the Mannheimer Corona study 2020, the care work division in Germany’s lockdown is 50% mother alone; 25% men alone; 25% together. Thus, many pointed to the re-traditionalization of family and gender relations from the required home office and homeschooling combination.

Besides that, it represents an increase in domestic violence against women and children because, for instance, there are fewer intervention opportunities in the lockdown context. Also, there is a lack of offers for children and an enlargement in the educational gap between high and middle-class and socially disadvantaged children and young people. From this data, Prof. Thiessen counterpointed and stated there is no significant re-traditionalization but rather the discovery of gender-traditional relationships structuring life’s guiding principles in society. 

Prof. Thiessen also approached gender inequalities within care professions: deemed typically “female professions” such as care are traditionally under male leadership, the economization of care work, and the long-known shortage of skilled workers. In the pandemic, care work suddenly became system relevant. However, instead of providing appropriate working conditions, the care workers mostly received only applauses. 

Finally, she highlighted that even though there are discernible changes in the relationship between gender and care, it is mandatory to plead a more precise structural framework. Therefore, she indicated practical strategies to face the gender challenges in and after the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the “Clean Up Time! Redesigning Care after Corona,” a position paper from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Among the concrete measures, Prof. Thiessen emphasized the need for a joint responsibility initiative for good caring practices involving family, state, market, and civil society.

From a comparative perspective, the main point is – both the gender care gap and gender-traditional relations were “alive and well” before COVID-19, increased during the pandemic, and will not simply disappear after the crisis is gone. The matter has deeper roots than to be the merely social and political side effects of the pandemic. To illustrate, although the German government has been thoughtfully and science-based oriented in addressing the COVID-19 challenge, it still was not enough to prevent severe gender impacts within families and the broader care relations system. It points to the understanding that gender inequality is imbricated in social structures and, consequently, demands structural changes through direct actions. This element is crucial to compare the situation in Germany with other countries. In Brazil, for example, the current president not only denies the gravity of the pandemic [a “little flu” and a “media trick”] but is also shameless in propagating sexist, homophobic, and racist statements. A priori dangerous, the current president’s behavior is particularly threatening because Brazil ranks among the most unequal countries globally, significantly harming women and black people in situations of social and economic vulnerability. An intersectional approach is mandatory to face COVID-19 gender-related challenges, comprehending that gender is not a sole factor – especially in social and political settings like the Brazilian one. 

As Prof. Thiessen stated, an objective action plan, as well as political pressure for a new concept of care, are vital to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, in the current Brazilian circumstances, the government seems progressively distant from participating in regional and global debates to construct solutions. Even more problematic, the president insists on questioning vaccines’ effectiveness, scientific credibility, and vaccination policies

Prof. Thiessen’s lecture organized by the AK Gender proportionated fruitful debates, especially for remarking the long-ongoing gender [several] crises. From an interdisciplinary perspective, it was also possible to think comparatively on gender issues to walk towards concrete local solutions. Ultimately, gender inequality remains a structural issue, and COVID-19 disasters in health, social, and political areas must be taken seriously so that we can learn at least a couple of lessons on equity.