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WOMEN AND COVID: Doubling down on gender inequality?

We might have all been in the same storm, but we haven’t all been in the same boat.  Those who are the most vulnerable, those who were locked in poverty and injustice before lockdown have often been hit the hardest. 

Women have been deeply affected by COVID-19.  Inequality has been made worse for many women during the pandemic with government economic support policies "skewed towards men".  UN Women have shone a spotlight on this, as has the Lancet, and other organisations.


The recent report by the Women and Equalities Committee said that while ministers acted to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits, the different ways in which this impacted men and women were not considered.


The Committee concluded that the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis had been different for men and women because of existing inequalities, the over-representation of women in certain types of work, and the actions the government has taken - women are more likely to be employed in sectors shut down during the pandemic – like retail, cleaning, catering and hospitality - and are therefore more at risk of job loss or being placed on furlough.


The Committee also found that women who did continue to work were disproportionately employed in less secure work arrangements such as zero hours contracts or temporary employment - arrangements where workers have suffered bigger falls in earnings or hours during the pandemic. 


But much of this is not directly visible, since reporting on gender pay gaps was suspended during 2019/20 due to COVID. Calls are now mounting for the government to confirm whether employers will need to report their 2020/21 gender pay gap figures.


And on top of all this, care work in the home tends to fall to women.  One reason for the greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women.

This includes caring for relatives who may be sick or shielding, in addition to running the household and looking after children (e.g. home schooling).


Natalie is a divorced mum of three – all under 10 years of age.  Two of the three have special educational needs and disabilities. She also has a mum that’s shielding. Natalie’s ex-husband works in the hospitality sector. He’s been furloughed so has free time, but is finding lockdown difficult and he says that’s why he’s no longer reliable in helping out with the children.  Looking after the children and home schooling falls to Natalie, as does looking after her ex-husband and her mum.

Natalie tries hard to take care of her family, and has a job at a storage facility on a zero hours basis.  It’s hard because she never knows when she’s going to be called in to work.  A few months ago she was asked to work, so she arranged child care because she couldn’t depend on her ex-husband. When she got there, she was told there was no work due to COVID, so she had to go home.  She’d already paid for the child care, but earned no money that day.  Natalie is at her wits’ end because she doesn’t have enough money to keep her family warm and fed in the way that she would wish.  She doesn’t want to reach out to her doctor or to mental health services because she’s worried that she’d lose her job if they were to find out – or she might even lose her children. 

I’m not saying that the pandemic hasn’t affected men – there’s more work to do to understand the impact on men.  But the impact on women is crystal clear and results from deeply ingrained historic structural inequalities.  And we need to do something about this – addressing this benefits everyone and will help us re-build the economy.


Equality impact assessment is vital. It’s jargon, but it stands for a really important thing: checking whether a policy (or the implementation of that policy) has unintended adverse consequences for particular groups of people.  That can then drive action to fix the problem.


So what can we do about this? Each of us can make a difference. We must ask those in power whether policies and delivery of public services have been equality impact assessed, what those impact assessments revealed, and what’s been done about it.  By bringing these things to the attention of those in power we can start to drive change, so that everyone benefits. 


Reach out to others, discuss these issues with your friends and neighbours.  Lobby your MP, and speak to your local councillor.  And use your vote wisely – we can bring change through the ballot box too.

Judith Davey-Cole, February 2021

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