Where next for the pandemic’s pink-collar heroes?

Early in the pandemic, Arundhati Roy wrote that the pandemic is a portal – a break with the past and an opportunity to reassess our priorities. Initial signs were promising. The environment began to recover – with a reduction in traffic, carbon emissions were down and birdsong was back in our cities.

Governments, businesses and civil society rallied around the most vulnerable; to shield them, support them and extend help. The unsung heroes of our societies – our nurses, social workers and teachers were celebrated for the vital work they did and their efforts to keep society functioning.

COVID-19… a missed opportunity to advance gender equality?

And yet with the darkest days of the pandemic behind us – and memories fading fast – there is now a real risk that rather than a portal to something better, it has instead become a revolving door. This would leave us back where we started, especially in our treatment of the pandemic’s “pink collar” heroes.

Women are undertaking critical work

“Pink-collar” jobs – areas in which women traditionally hold most of the jobs – include areas such as nursing, childcare, education, social work or personal and household services. These are areas which proved so vital during the pandemic.

Across OECD countries, more than 70% of workers in education and more than 75% of workers in health and social work are women. This is particularly stark in long-term care, where women hold more than 90% of the jobs across OECD countries. Often these jobs are in the social economy.

In France, the social economy employs 88% of health and 81% of education workers, and in rural areas, more than 90% of care services are performed by social economy workers.

The social economy holds promising lessons to advance gender equality

Gender gaps in pay and leadership are often lower in the social economy, offering lessons for the rest of economy. In Spain, the gender gap in pay in the social economy are 8 percentage points smaller than in the private sector.

Social economy entities also support women’s employment in the wider economy. In the province of Québec, Canada, most early childhood centres are run by SSE entities. In Sweden, around 10% of childcare is provided by co‑operatives (Coompanion Sweden).

Many SSE entities also address issues linked to women’s health and employment quality, such as the provision of menstrual products (e.g. the Pad Project in the United States) or working conditions of foreign care workers (e.g. FairCare by Diakonie Württemberg, Germany).

But this is not enough. Across countries, women still carry the majority burden of unpaid care work and hold the largest share of jobs in nursing, childcare, education or personal and household services. The burden placed on women, including on their health and mental health, is not fully recognised. The work they do is insufficiently compensated. Initial efforts were promising but policy action needs to be stepped up.

From warm words to real recognition

This critical work now needs to be rewarded with action, not just words to broaden the appeal of pink-collar jobs – both for women and men. The current political momentum around the social economy can help.

With the EU Action Plan on the Social Economy, the OECD Recommendation on the Social and Solidarity Economy and Social Innovation and the ILO Resolution the way is paved for political action on the social economy and improve working conditions and salaries for so many of these jobs.

Further recognition and improvement of gender pay and leadership gaps, appropriate access to finance and an increasing gender balance in these roles and the social economy more broadly can also help move these roles from behind the curtains back into the limelight.

How to move beyond pink-collar jobs for women and
the social economy

Another important step is doing away with the terminology itself and stop treating “pink-collar” (and “blue-collar”) jobs as something exclusively to be performed by women (or men). These are critical roles. Everyone should be able to take them up with pride and a liveable paycheck. So, let’s take the lessons we can learn from the social economy and expand them into the mainstream. Let’s add a dash of blue and let a purple rain wash through the sector, resurrecting the dream of building back better.

Learn more about OECD work on women and the social economy

Re-watch the launch of the report “Beyond pink-collar jobs for women and the social economy”, with Marlène Schiappa, Secretary of State on the Social Economy and Associations (France), Zarah Bruhn, Ministry for Education and Research (Germany), Nitya Nangalia, SEWA Barath (India), Jean-Louis Bancel, Crédit Cooperatif (France), moderated by Deputy Secretary General Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen (OECD).

senior policy analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Amal Chevreau, a senior policy analyst in the social economy and innovation unit, Center for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, has authored and co-authored several publications on the social economy and social entrepreneurship. Amal also worked in the OECD regional development division. Prior to joining the OECD, Amal worked 10 years as head of studies and research at l’Institut de Prospective Economique du Monde Méditeranéen (Paris), and held several senior positions in regional development agencies in Morocco. She holds a BA in public law and political science (University Mohammed V- Morocco) an LLM in comparative law (University of Miami- School of Law-US) and an MA in international relations and international public law (Keele University-United Kingdom).

Policy Analyst, Social Economy and Social Innovation at | Website | + posts

Natalie Laechelt has been working at OECD since 2016, initially on 21st century skills, social inclusion, gender equality and the link between education and civil society organisations. Since 2021, she is investigating the social impact associations, cooperatives, foundations, mutual organisations and social enterprises are creating, still with a particular focus on youth and gender equality. Natalie holds a bachelors degree in Business Administration and International Commerce from Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) and University of Glamorgan as well as a bachelors and masters in Political Science from LMU Munich. She also studied at NUS in Singapore and Sciences Po in Paris.