We know the pandemic has affected everyone, but it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Although more men have died of the virus, in many respects women have experienced disproportionate economic and social effects. Pre-existing gender inequalities in the UK mean that men and women did not go into the pandemic on an equal footing, exacerbating the challenges women will face after it, with potentially severe long-term consequences.
Before the pandemic women in the UK – especially BAME, low-paid, and disabled women – were more likely to experience both in-work and out-of-work poverty. The Women’s Budget Group reports that women make up 69 per cent of low paid earners, 74 per cent of part-time workers and 54 per cent of zero hours contracts – putting them at risk during the pandemic of financial hardship and precarity.
So far, more men have been made redundant than women during the pandemic. But women are more likely to have been furloughed, less likely to have been hired, and young women in particular are disproportionately likely to work in industries that have been decimated by lockdowns.
Women are also less likely to maintain strong ties to their workplace or have their wages topped up during furlough. According to the Fawcett Society, evidence suggests that when the furlough scheme ends, women will be “exposed to redundancy” at the same rate as men – if not more.
Analysis by the think tank Autonomy also shows that women are taking on disproportionate health risks at work: 77 per cent of the 3,200,000 workers with the highest exposure to Covid-19 are women. Women make up 83 per cent of social care workers, for example, and 77 per cent of healthcare workers.
Of these “high risk” workers over one million are paid poverty wages (60 per cent of the median wage) – and 98 per cent of that group is made up of women.
A 2016 ONS analysis found that women still did an average of 60 per cent more unpaid labour – such as housework, cooking and looking after children – than men.
That’s changing, albeit slowly: according to the IFS, in families with children, fathers are taking on more household responsibilities than they were prior to the crisis. But school closures, job losses, and working from home mean that in lockdown, women in two-parent heterosexual households are only doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of men.
Because women are still responsible for the majority of childcare work, mothers are more reliant on access to childcare to take up paid employment. The sector was already struggling – only 56 per cent of local councils in England had enough childcare places for full-time working parents prior to the pandemic – and has been pushed into crisis. According to the Early Years Alliance, without additional funding one in six early years providers could close by Christmas.
Women will bear the brunt of the lost capacity in the childcare sector: the IFS reports that mothers are already more likely than fathers to have left paid work since the start of the pandemic, and have seen a larger proportional reduction in working hours. 98 per cent of childcare staff are also women.
A survey of nearly 20,000 mothers and pregnant women on the impact of coronavirus, carried out by Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity dedicated to ending systemic workplace discrimination, found that…
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, women are more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence and abuse than men. Self-isolation, working from home and lockdowns have increased the risk of abuse – confining victims with their abusers, isolating them from support networks and leaving them with fewer opportunities to seek safety or help.
The domestic abuse charity Refuge, which runs a 24-hour helpline and live chat, received 65 per cent more calls and contacts between April and June 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, and 700 per cent more visits to its helpline webpage.
With pressure mounting, these frontline services are facing their own challenges.
ONS data shows that nearly one in five adults were experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms in June this year – almost double the number before the pandemic. Women, adults aged between 16 and 39 years old, those unable to afford an unexpected expense, and disabled people were the most likely to experience some form of depression.
A Public Health England report published earlier this month on mental health and wellbeing in England similarly found that women were more likely to report higher levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, psychological distress and sleep loss during the early pandemic.
There was no difference in mental health decline among women from different ethnic groups. But there was also no evidence of a difference in mental health decline by gender among all BAME adults – suggesting the mental health gender gap is a phenomenon mostly associated with the White British population (although this might be skewed by smaller sample sizes for minority ethnicity respondents).