The pandemic impact gap: women are not in the same boat

12 June 2020

Women are on the front lines of the pandemic in every possible way

BBC Anchor Emily Maitlis recently won praise for deconstructing the disingenuous government narrative that the pandemic is a ‘great leveler’. The majority of those on the front lines of the pandemic are women, as women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally and also account for the majority of the world’s older population, and thus a majority of potential patients. For countless reasons, we are not in fact in the same boat, and the chasms on an already uneven playing field are growing, not shrinking.

COVID-19 has both exposed and exacerbated the stark inequalities that are tearing apart the fabric of our society, and it has quickly become clear that the impact of the pandemic on women is vastly incommensurate with that on men. Recently, I chaired an event with Gill Furniss MP, Minister for Women and Equalities who previously served on the Women and Equalities Select Committee. We looked at how Labour can hold the government to account by ensuring it is mitigating the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on women. More broadly, we also examined Labour’s role in the implementation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5; eradicating discrimination against women and girls. Many of the policies we discussed are interwoven with the topics covered here.

A Catalyst, Not a Cause

“The deadliest pandemic for women in our country, more than the coronavirus, is feminicidal violence”

– Congresswoman Martha Tagle, Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement party), Mexico


Karen Ingala Smith, who founded the pioneering project Counting Dead Women, found that femicide has tripled since the lockdown began, with 14 women murdered in the UK over a three week period compared to 5 in the same period last year. In Mexico, almost 1000 women have been killed since the start of the year, up 8 percent on the previous year,  and national helpline calls have increased by a third in France. Spain has also seen a calamitous rise in domestic violence and implemented the ‘Mascarilla-19’ campaign, encouraging victims to ask for the ‘Mask-19’ in pharmacies to call for help, similar to the UK scheme wherein the Boots pharmacy chain has made their consultation rooms accessible safe spaces for survivors of domestic abuse.6

Media reporting of the murders has reductively attributed the killing to the circumstances rather than the perpetrators; for example the Sun framing it as ‘coronavirus murders’ 7 and the Telegraph as ‘self-isolation murders’.8  This constructs an insidious narrative that the virus is not only an accelerant to feminicidal violence but that it is in fact to blame, and further implies that these murders and episodes of coercive control will dissipate once the lockdown ceases, when in reality they existed long before the lockdown and will exist long after. The restrictions of lockdown can expedite the transition through the stages of violence (e.g. by providing a trigger) but it must not be characterised as a reason in itself which can play into a climate of impunity, with killers effectively being exonerated from their crimes, similar to the ‘crime of passion’ defence.

The vital and historic UK domestic abuse bill is now making its way back through parliament, having been reintroduced for a third time at the beginning of March and debated at its second reading on 28th April. But domestic violence isn’t the only issue on the rise, as reports of street harassment both in numbers and threat level have also increased. A study involving 1000 women by Plan International UK showed that women perceived street harassment as worse and as occurring more frequently, with 1 in 5 reported having experienced it since the lockdown.

Parity of Pay: Gender Pay Gap Reporting Abandoned

Women are also the comparative precariat in the pandemic, being three times more likely to be impacted worse financially as they are radically overrepresented in low-paid insecure sectors such as care, retail and hospitality. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have completely abandoned gender pay gap reporting during the pandemic as of 24th March, asserting that ‘there will be no expectation on employers to report their data’. Removing the obligation just over a week before the 4 April deadline when companies would have already collated the data raises serious questions about government priorities. Using the pandemic to enable the withholding of vital public information is unacceptable. At our event, I asked Gill Furniss whether she thought this decision was the right one, and the answer was a resounding ‘no’. This is a monumental blow to years of progress in closing the gender pay gap, and the economic fallout of the pandemic threatens to widen the disparity in remuneration between the sexes. Not only this, but gender equity will be further undermined in furloughing and redundancy decisions with no scrutiny nor routes to accountability available.

The Pandemic and Female Academics

Gender pay gap reporting being baselessly abandoned isn’t the only detrimental side effect the pandemic (and an inappropriate government response) has caused for women in work. Whilst researching algorithmic bias against women in artificial intelligence systems, I came across contemporary reports that academic submissions by women have tanked compared to men since the onset of the pandemic. ‘Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month. Never seen anything like it’ wrote Elizabeth Hannon,British Journal of Philosophy of Science editor. Astrophysics journal editors Dolan and Lawless, and a study by the University of Toronto have all noted similar results of the rate of publishing by females having fallen relative to men amid the crisis. Many women already juggled more domestic and affective or emotional labour with paid work prior to the pandemic, but much of the support structures they had in place, including childcare, have been stripped away since the lockdown. As the home becomes an intersection of work, family and administration, women are having to take on more ‘silent chores’ like housework, cleaning and shopping, as well as childcare responsibilities compared to men.

There is also the motherhood penalty to contend with, as even if women are earning while in a relationship, there are still far higher expectations that men work full time compared to women. Academic women who do ascend through faculty ranks also pay a considerable price for doing so, in the form of much lower rates of family formation, fertility, and higher rates of family dissolution. For men, however, the pattern has been either neutral or even net-positive.

The Regression of Women’s Services

During the event, Gill Furniss and I spent a fair amount of time discussing an effect that has had grave consequences for women worldwide, namely the reduction of women’s services. As countries respond to the crisis, resources have been drastically reallocated, and it is women who are being left behind. Funding has been stripped away from prenatal and maternal care, and even more worryingly, access to contraceptives and safe abortions have been rolled back in several countries. Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion on 22 October, and a new framework came into effect from the 31 March 2020. However, the DUP has used the crisis to stymie the rollout of abortion services, and during the pandemic, pregnant women in need of reproductive services have been forced to make lengthy roundtrips to Britain or Ireland to access terminations. Abortion rights activist Emma Campbell, co-chair of the Alliance for Choice group, which has seen a five-fold increase in calls for help since the travel restrictions were introduced, said that ‘Access is worse than it has been for over 50 years’. Meanwhile, George Orwell’s totalitarian ‘Newspeak’, characterised by the elimination or alteration of certain words and ‘designed to diminish the range of thought’ has been brought to life in the United States, as President Trump has exploited the crisis to force the World Health Organisation to delete references to women’s sexual and reproductive health services, threatening to withdraw funding if they do not comply (and the rest is history).

A Historical Opportunity for Equality

The COVID-19 crisis has certainly thrown gender-based differences into even sharper relief, but as with the climate crisis and homelessness, it has also created an opportunity for policy-makers to introduce long-term change to systems that are not fit for purpose. The grim reminder of mortality and the prolonged time spent at home with severely reduced social interactions has put much into perspective for many, and has allowed time and space to re-evaluate our lives, and the ideologies and structures that underpin our societies. By inadvertently increasing awareness of women’s issues, the pandemic has created more scope for progress to be made.

The crisis also transcends political parties, and with women’s lives literally being on the line, it is not the time for partisan politics. Hosting Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Shadow Home Secretary recently, I touched on the fact that both he and Jess Phillips MP had been blocked from attending the key government coronavirus domestic abuse virtual ‘Hidden Harms’ summit by Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite both of their longstanding work on the issue. Political parties must work together to shape policy like this, or else people will clearly suffer. Policy-makers at all levels must engage with women and women’s rights organisations when formulating responses to this crisis, and we must review our valuation and compensation for women’s contributions to health care, home-based labour, and the economy. Women’s support structures, including shelters, charities, and emergency housing schemes, must not only be maintained but strengthened going forward, and defunding of women’s services must be prevented at all costs. Strategies similar to affirmative action need to be implemented in academia and it is imperative that commitment to female representation be renewed in politics, business and positions of authority.

As a practical step, gender pay gap reporting needs to be restored immediately, and businesses must be required to publish their data. Change cannot be left to chance. Street harassment also needs to be criminalised as it has been in France, and fighting domestic violence and abuse must be prioritised with more funding and resources being made available. The Northern Ireland Office and NI Department of Health must uphold human rights and ensure there is free, safe, local and legal access to abortion care in line with regulations. A holistic approach needs to be taken to tackle the crisis which properly accounts for women’s experiences at all levels in order to achieve fairer outcomes, and international cooperation in these fields needs to be reinvigorated rather than relegated at a time when the world risks turning in on itself.