Sexism and the Pandemic: How are Women Being Left Behind in Coronavirus Recovery Plans?
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Coronavirus turned the world upside down. It distanced us from our friends and family. It stopped us from leaving our homes. It really changed everything. However, something it only emphasised and highlighted is the gender inequality so prevalent in this world. Women, especially those stemming from minority groups, were (and still are) particularly affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 and its repercussions demonstrate that the world we live in is still deeply misogynistic. We see this in women’s professional lives, in their household and care duties and their lack of representation in policymaking. We have seen that even a pandemic is sexist.
Women – at the fore but far away
No one should be surprised by the fact that women carried our society forward during this pandemic. They dominated and continue to dominate frontline healthcare roles and other essential jobs like teaching, cleaning or care. Of course, this makes them more vulnerable to contracting the virus, since these jobs involve a lot of face-to-face work.
Sadly, these jobs are part of what are often referred to as ‘female-dominated’ industries, which are notoriously low-paid. Of course, women take on these jobs for their own reasons. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute: ‘Women are making a logical choice, given existing constraints’. The most pressing existing constraint is male prevalence. Many women feel intimidated when entering a male-dominated workforce due to existing gender stereotypes and the all-encompassing sexism within society.
We all know that women typically earn less than men. However, this is made significantly worse when considering the added financial and time burden of domestic unpaid chores like childcare. Since the pandemic has seen the closure of many care facilities, there has an increase in unpaid domestic care. Said unpaid care is still primarily done by women. In fact, as of 2011, 57.5% of unpaid carers were female. This is often related back to traditional gender roles still circulating throughout our society. Often, women give up their jobs to care for their loved ones which can make them more financially dependent on others such as their partners or the government.
Additionally, women also predominantly work within the industries most impacted by lockdowns and quarantine: retail, accommodation and food services. For example, the House of Lords Library published data which showed that more women have been furloughed than men. It is estimated that by the end of January 2021, as a result of the third UK lockdown, 2.32 million women had been furloughed compared to 2.18 million men.
When discussing furlough and unemployment, we mustn’t forget about ethnic minorities. An analysis by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) revealed that the unemployment rate for Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) workers has risen from 5.8% to 9.5% between the final quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. When compared to the also increasing unemployment rate for white workers (rising from 3.4% to 4.5%) this finding is shocking. These findings, coupled with the fact that women are hit worse by the pandemic in general, makes BAME women particularly vulnerable.
The healthcare paradox
Paradoxically, while women make up the majority of healthcare workers, their access to exactly that has been severely restricted during the pandemic. As countries made it their priority to combat COVID-19, they allocated all of their resources to fighting it. Although this was a necessary evil, governments did not think this through properly.
One of the consequences was that women could not seek shelter from domestic violence anymore, which skyrocketed during the pandemic. Society also took a step backwards regarding reproductive rights. Access to abortions and other sexual health services was greatly reduced. This creates a vicious cycle, since unplanned pregnancy can severely impact both the mental health of women and their financial situation. While no extensive research into this has been conducted yet, it is not hard to imagine the effects. In addition, we can’t forget that restricted access to abortions (in most Western countries) can put several human rights at risk.
Given the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on women, you would assume that women would be heavily incorporated in Coronavirus recovery plans. Sadly, this is not the case. According to a study by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) of the European Parliament, men have tended to outnumber women in COVID-19 task forces. Indeed, only 3.5% of teams globally have achieved gender parity in those teams. Only 30% of health ministers in the EU are women. Consequently, the effect of the pandemic was mainly assessed by men: mainly white, cis-gender men.
This male stance is particularly detrimental in countries with more traditional views on gender roles like Italy or Poland. Where these traditional views are present amongst those in power, viewing the world through sexist and patriarchy-coloured glasses, leaders might choose to turn a blind eye to the disproportionate effects of the pandemic.
What now must happen is the inclusion of women’s rights organisations in COVID policymaking, the introduction of gender quotas in COVID-19 task forces and a general focus on gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is a strategy to achieve gender equality between women and men. The five principles of it are:
Gender-specific data collection and analysis
Equal access to and utilisation of services
Women and men being equally involved in decision making
Equal treatment being integrated into managing processes (quality management, gender budgeting)
All of these principles are vital for Coronavirus recovery plans. While we now have data trackers such as the COVID-19 Sex Disaggregated Data Tracker by Global Health 50/50, which acknowledges the differences of the pandemic on women and men, they are not yet sufficiently integrated into policymaking.
According to Global Health 50/50, the tracker only distinguishes between biological sex and does not account for different gender identities. This results in the exclusion of transgender and non-binary people which only highlights another failure of policymaking by governmental bodies. As Professor Sarah Hawkes, director of the Centre for Gender and Global Health, correctly states: ‘The pandemic has finally opened our eyes to the fact that health is not driven just by biology, but by the social environment in which we all find ourselves and gender is a major part of that’.
So, it is now time for governments and policymakers to acknowledge the disproportionate effect of the virus on different genders. We cannot continue to leave half of the world’s population behind. To move forward, we need to make gender mainstreaming mainstream and counteract the prevailing sexism of the pandemic.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues and Feminism section.