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Covid 19 and the Taken for Granted Care Economy

by | May, 2021

Friday the 9th of April 2021 saw TWIMS host its first session of the Inclusive Conversations series, entitled Covid 19 and the taken for Granted Care Economy. Liesel Kassier – TWIMS’ Metair Academic Head of Green Manufacturing – led the session which consisted of women in manufacturing from: Toyota, Mondi, Supreme Springs, Smiths Manufacturing, Tetrapak and Mahle Behr.

Unpacking the Care Economy

The session began with a presentation by Liesel Kassier which took participants back to the foundations of economics and the teachings of Adam Smith’s circular flow of money and goods. It was highlighted that as part of this foundational model of economics, the role of the care economy has never been acknowledged or measured in the formal metrics of economic activity. The care economy is defined as the labour that is involved in raising children, looking after the home and is vital to maintaining the labour force as well as ensuring societal cohesion. This unpaid sector has historically been overrepresented by women and therefore women’s contribution to the functioning of society has been systematically underestimated and undervalued. Anecdotally it was noted that Adam Smith himself never married and lived all is life with his mother Margaret Douglas, who took care of his every daily need and yet he failed to see the value of this in his own life.

Global Survey Data

As part of the presentation, the results of the Deloitte’s Global Survey on the impact of Covid19 on women, as well as the Mckinsey Women in the Workplace Survey in the United States were examined. The main themes emerging from these surveys was that the household labour and childcare resulting from Covid 19 lockdowns, predominantly fell on women. This resulted in more women than men, considering the need to downscale their professional career due to the inability to juggle all the demands on their time. The final part of the presentation examined the South African context, and a discussion was had around a potential hidden care economy. This was framed in the context of women who provide domestic help in South Africa. These women are largely categorised as part of the informal economy resulting in little formal job protection, and they have their own family burden and pressures to contend with.

Focus Groups

The second half of the session involved participants breaking up into focus groups to unpack the lived experiences of women in manufacturing during Covid 19 in South Africa. The questions that were explored in these focus groups were the following:

  • How did Covid19 impact your workload and was your company supportive of you?
  • What was the nature of your caring work at home, how much responsibility did you take for it and what were the challenges?
  • Support systems for their caring role – what did you lose in lockdown; did you gain any new forms of support?

A summation of the interesting and pertinent themes that emerged from these discussions revealed the following:

Company Support

Most of the women participants felt that they were well supported by their companies during lockdown. Some felt that their company had “gone the extra mile” through the support they had offered their employees including initiatives such as vitamin handouts; personalised taxi services and providing equipment to work at home. For those that had contracted Covid 19, they felt that real care was shown to them, with their managers and executives phoning regularly to show concern. There were some women participants that had very negative experiences with their company. It was felt that Covid 19 was not taken seriously and numerous jobs and pay cuts were made, however, these were in the minority in comparison to the overall focus group.

Burden of Responsibility

Most of the women felt the overwhelming burden and responsibility for work in the home, with the overall sentiment being that if they did not pick up the work at home it would not get done. The words “anxiety, stress and burden of responsibility” were used a lot in relation to this theme. There was also a feeling by some that if you raised the fact that you were not coping with family matters with work colleagues, this would be perceived as a weakness. Some women indicated that they did have family meetings where a division of labour was discussed, and responsibilities were assigned but this was often not adhered to. A discussion was had around women feeling this underlying responsibility for the home and upholding standards in terms of how they would like things done. It was noted that it is often not about actual activities or tasks, but rather the burden of responsibility. Women have a sense that they are the “Glue that hangs everything together” – this magnitude becomes overwhelming. Some participants said that they also had to learn to let some of this go and accept the help of family members if it was offered. A few women participants, particularly those with small children indicated that they had live-in child-care throughout the lockdown and without this assistance, they would never have been able to cope with their formal careers and the care in the home.


For those women with children, a strong theme that emerged was that of “reconnection”. Most women felt an extreme sense of gratitude to be able to receive time to spend with their children which they would not normally have had. Women with teenage children described the process as one of getting to know your children again and really appreciated that time. Other women described it as a “pause moment” in which they were able to reflect on and re-evaluate what was important in life. There was a commitment in the room by some that these learnings had become part of the new way in which they were living their lives.

Future Discussions

At the end of the day, the unanimous view was that the time for discussion had been too short and that there was still so much more that could be spoken about and unpacked. This bodes well for our second session of the Inclusive Conversations Series on the 2nd of July 2021, where Khavitha Singh the Toyota Head of Lean manufacturing at TWIMS will be unpacking the topic of “Difficult conversations, women need to have with men and other women”.

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