Working, Caring, Surviving: The Gender Dynamics of Remote Work in Brazil Under COVID-19

Working, Caring, Surviving: The Gender Dynamics of Remote Work in Brazil Under COVID-19

Lygia Sabbag Fares (Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, USA), Ana Luíza Matos de Oliveira (FLACSO, Brazil) and Lílian Nogueira Rolim (University of Campinas, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6754-8.ch002
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Drawing from a questionnaire answered by 455 people during social distancing in Brazil, the chapter analyzes how individuals who worked remotely and those who did not cope with the increase in domestic and care work and how this extra work was divided in gender terms. The questionnaire indicates that the pandemic increased both domestic and care activities, with the former being more frequent for women and those under remote work. In general, this was not accompanied by a better division of these activities across sexes as women remained mainly responsible for them. Nevertheless, some improvements in the division of the domestic work were observed amongst those under remote work. However, when such a rebalance does not occur, remote work tends to be associated with an increase in women's overburdening.
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Remote work, teleworking, working at home, home-based work and their effects on workers, and especially on women, have long been discussed in the literature (Huws et al, 1996; Lyttelton, Zang & Musick, 2020). Indeed, working from home potentially increases women’s total (paid and domestic) working time and blurs the boundaries between the two. Despite not being a new phenomenon, remote work became widespread in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (ILO, 2020). In this context, the relation between remote work, domestic work and gender inequality became even more relevant, as the consequences of such drastic increases in remote work on workers is subject to the already existing sexual division of labor. This chapter focuses on the impact of remote work in Brazil considering the gender dynamics of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic and contributes to the literature and to this book by addressing how remote work imposed by social-distancing measures impacts unpaid work and women. It discusses the sexual division of labor in the Brazilian society (in which women are socially responsible for domestic work) and the consequences of remote work for women. In this sense, it proposes a framework for discussing the challenges of remote work for women during and post pandemic, highlighting the lessons from the pandemic period. The chapter contributes to understanding the effects of remote work on society in general and on the sexual division of labor.

It is important to provide some context to the Brazilian situation when this study took place. The response to the pandemic by the Brazilian government in 2020 was controversial, with strong economic implications. The President dismissed the gravity of the disease, the need for social distancing and the use of masks, and even pushed for the use of Hydroxychloroquine, a drug with no proven effect against COVID-19. By October 2020, Brazil had reached 5 million infections and 150,000 deaths from the disease, a number which is likely to be underreported. According to Worldometers (2020), by October 2020, Brazil, the third country in absolute number of infections, was at the 91st place in COVID-19 tests per million inhabitants. At the same time, the country’s economy suffered, first in early 2020 as a reflection of the crisis in Europe and in China; then from March 2020 onwards, when the virus reached Brazil and social distancing measures were initiated. Social distancing measures varied in time and between regions, with very few going into full lockdown and for very short periods of time. In most regions, economic activities which require interaction were prohibited in the beginning of the pandemic (March 2020) and there was a social awareness of the need for social distance. Yet, the lack of national coordination in this process is an important feature of Brazil’s response to the crisis. Particularly exposed to the crisis are those in vulnerable groups and informal workers.

In social and economic terms, the effects of the pandemic are likely to be long lasting, as it adds to the already unequal structure of the Brazilian society, characterized by vulnerability, informality, and various forms of inequality. According to Oliveira & Emídio (2021), inequality is set to worsen as in this moment of crisis, those with monetary savings, support and social capital are in better positions to move forward. Indeed, the authors argue that the pandemic affects not only economic variables per se but also life trajectories. In this sense, the pandemic may reinforce existing economic and geographic divides.

There is also a relevant gender dimension to this process, as social distancing and the related increase in remote work affected a society already marked by significant gender inequalities. National statistics show that in 2019, women dedicated 21.4 hours per week on average for domestic labor, while men spent 11 hours per week (IBGE, 2020a). Being primarily responsible for reproductive labor entails numerous and long-lasting implications for women, such as reduced available time for paid work and various discrimination experiences in the labor market. Adding to this context, the pandemic of COVID-19 has disrupted the world of work in many ways, one of which being the increase of domestic work, as social distancing imposed the closure of workplaces, schools, restaurants, and governmental services that aid the reproduction of the workforce.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Care Work: Caring for children, elderly or sick and other dependents.

Reproduction of the Workforce: The worker's reproduction of his/her own labor power (or of future generations of workers), which consist of care and domestic work. Women “subsidize” the capitalist system by performing these activities.

“Gender Ideology”: An expression used to reject the sex and gender distinction, arguing that gender roles and inequalities are “natural”.

Total Working Time: The total amount of time spent in paid work and in care/domestic activities (unpaid). As women are usually responsible for these unpaid activities, combining paid and unpaid work leads to women’s overburden.

Unpaid Work: Work that produces goods and/or services with no direct remuneration or payment for the individual performing it. In the household, unpaid work is visible through domestic and care work.

Domestic Work: The activities regarding household cleaning and maintenance, preparation of meals for the consumption of household and family members, household budgeting, caring for family members and a variety of other tasks. Domestic work may be performed for pay or in an unpaid regime (for the individual him/herself or those in the household, friends, and neighbors).

Sexual Division of Labor: The delegation of different tasks between men and women. In the Brazilian society, women are responsible for domestic and care work.

Gender: A social construction which stipulates gender roles and implicitly and explicitly categorizes people and social behaviors.

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