How has the Coronavirus impacted Women?
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
It’s hardly newsworthy to say that the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities in society. We know that Covid-19 itself affects certain groups more so than others: men and people of colour are more at risk of catching the virus and developing serious complications.
Additionally, there have been numerous reports on the effect of the pandemic on women and girls, with fears that gender equality progress will be set back by several years.
In times of crisis, people tend to take fewer risks and revert to what they know. This means that work is often distributed to traditional gender roles at a more extreme rate than usual, with women being more likely to take on the caregiver role.
Let’s take a look at the various impacts that coronavirus has had on women and girls, in particular focusing on how the pandemic has changed women’s lives in the world of work, health and home life.
Before the pandemic, fewer women were unemployed than men. This has now changed, with more jobs held by women being hit by the pandemic than those held by men. This likely has a lot to do with the type of work typically done by women. In the UK, women are more likely to work part-time or in lower-grade jobs. A report carried out by Parliament in early March of this year found that, although 22% of women (compared to 20% of men) occupied highly skilled positions in 2019, only 8% of women (compared to 14% of men) held managerial or senior official positions.
As companies struggle to deal with the financial impact of a pandemic and lockdown restrictions on their business, employees in lower paid and lower grade roles are the most likely to lose their jobs. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that women (who hold 69% of low-paid roles) have borne the brunt of redundancies since March. It has been shown that periods of unemployment are damaging to future career progression; this period can potentially create further difficulties down the line when seeking a new job.
We know that the ways life has changed because of measures to protect populations from the virus have impacted groups in vastly different ways. Working from home is now the norm for those who would usually work in offices. (see below for suggestion)
We know that our lives have transformed in different ways due to protective government measures. Consequently, working from home is now the norm for office workers.
For key workers, this is not possible. As they are unable to work from home, key workers are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19. According to the previously mentioned report carried out by the government, the following industries have the highest percentage of female employees: health and social care, retail and education. With each of these sectors having high amounts of contact with other people, even during the pandemic, women are more likely to catch the virus.
Additionally, many of the people working in these positions earn less than those working in office jobs, meaning that they do not have the financial luxury of staying at home, even if they would prefer to. The case of Belly Mujinga highlights this dilemma: often women, and women of colour being at a further disadvantage, are reliant on an empathetic employer if their concerns about their health when working during a pandemic are to be listened to and resolved.
While men remain more at risk of serious complications of Covid-19, a common theme of the pandemic has been how women’s health and safety needs have been overlooked. A lack of well-fitting PPE was a serious problem at the peak of the pandemic, as it was reported that the majority of PPE was based on a single “standard” size. The problem is that masks and protective gear were made with the average male build in mind, with little regard for female body types. Even though women make up a large proportion of the NHS workforce, these basic needs were not considered. Ill-fitting PPE increases the risk of virus transmission, therefore female healthcare workers were at increased risk of contracting the virus compared to their male counterparts.
Pregnant people have faced challenges as a direct result of Covid-19 restrictions which have separated them from their partners during important moments such as ultrasound scans. Furthermore, people who are to receive bad news must face this alone, without the support of their partners.
During labour, women in Ireland are permitted to have a birth partner, but they must leave the hospital one hour after the baby is born. Given that the birth partner is usually the baby’s father, this rule reinforces the idea that bringing up children is entirely the responsibility of women.
These rules, as part of a tendance to overlook women’s needs at such a crucial time in their lives, can have a significant effect on not only their mental wellbeing, but physical too. Worldwide maternal mortality has risen since the pandemic for several reasons. Healthcare workers give priority to those ill with Covid-19 and maternal health is consequently neglected.
In many countries across the world, access to abortions and sexual health services were affected by restrictions. In areas of South Africa, where HIV is a serious problem, vulnerable girls who are at high risk are missing out on vital health and sexual education sessions due to bans on large gatherings and the reprioritisation of education and health resources.
In Brazil, the limits on access to reproductive health care went beyond the World Health Organisation’s advice and many sexual and reproductive health centres were closed, despite recommendations that they remained open. Therefore, it became even harder than before to access services such as abortion and contraception. The case of Brazil is indicative of a wider global trend for populist leaders to use the pandemic as an opportunity to bring in more authoritarian measures, which often limit access to support for women and other marginalised groups
Life at home
For some people, staying at home did not keep them safe from harm. Cases of domestic violence worldwide increased by an estimated 20% over the first lockdown, a worrying statistic given that we are now in our second lockdown of the year. For many, the possibility of being away at work or an abusive partner being at work offered respite. Being forced to stay at home, compounded with money and health concerns is thought to be a driver of this increase. You can read more about the effects of the pandemic on domestic abuse here.
A more widespread consequence of government-imposed lockdowns on the lives of women is a regression to traditional gender roles. It is often said that working women work two shifts: one at work and then another at home carrying out domestic tasks. How did this change when women had to work from home?
Several articles were published citing stark differences in the numbers of academic papers written by male and female academics over the first lockdown, in comparison to pre-lockdown. Women were left to shoulder the responsibilities of childcare and housework while their partners worked, whereas men were able to focus better at home and get their heads down without colleagues to distract them.
In the months that have followed since the outbreak, improvements have been made to reduce the burden on women in the UK, allowing exemptions on households mixing for childcare arrangements to be made for working parents.
Overall, it is evident that the pandemic has had hugely gendered implications. An OECD report found that it is rare for gender experts to be included in public health interventions, with such issues being ignored until they become a problem. Only one in eight countries has taken action to combat the impact of the pandemic on women and girls, according to the UN.
With so few countries taking the needs of women and girls into consideration, it is now clearer than ever that women should be key players in decision-making. Their involvement ensures that their needs aren’t overlooked and that decades of vital progress aren’t lost in times of crisis.
For more resources, head to our dedicated Feminism & Gender Issues section.