The Gendered Impact of COVID-19

Peter Stoddart, YCL Student Officer

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis taking place across the world is producing some of the most significant upheavals the world has seen since the Second World War. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was first admitted to hospital with the Virus on the 5thof April. His battle with the illness prompted a wave of sympathy, with commentators sending niceties, positing that this highlighted that the Coronavirus can and does affect us all. “We are all in this together”, as Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argued, and while it is clear that the Coronavirus is affecting us all, it is important to highlight that it is not affecting us all equally. There are obvious class differences in how people are able to cope amid the government lockdown. However, there are also key gender differences, and as usual women are bearing the brunt of both the economic repercussions of the lockdown, and are put at greater risk of infection.

Firstly, women are more likely to work in the care sector than men. Here in the UK, 77% of all NHS staff are women. This undoubtedly indicates a gendered impact with nearly 4 times as many women as men putting themselves at risk during the ongoing Crisis. Additionally, only 46% of very senior manager roles in the NHS are held by women. This reversal of the gender imbalance indicates an even higher gender imbalance at lower paid frontline roles. This horizontal and vertical employment segregation is mirrored across the world as is the glass ceiling effect that sees women lose out on top roles. In addition, a recent report from the Royal College of Nursing identifies the gendered norms that push some into the role, believing it is “their calling” (Clayton-Hathway et al., 2020, pg 5). They highlight that this can be problematic, contributing to “huge amounts of goodwill demonstrated by nursing staff, both in working beyond their paid hours and in difficult contexts, often without financial reward.” (ibid.). This has undoubtedly been evidenced amid the ongoing crisis, as nurses and other healthcare staff go above and beyond to support those in their care.

The crisis has also made the inherent androcentric bias in our society more apparent. Despite the fact that the vast majority of nurses and frontline healthcare staff are women, PPE is designed with men in mind. Criardo-Perez (2019) identifies this key problem, describing a “one size fits men” approach to supposedly unisex products. The ongoing crisis exemplifies this, as supposedly unisex masks, gloves and respiratory equipment fails to protect female careworkers. Dr Helen Fidler, of the British Medical Association (BMA), said: “Women’s lives are being put at risk because of ill-fitting PPE” (ibid.). This exemplifies a critical gendered impact of the ongoing Coronavirus crisis. Not only is PPE ill-fitting, and not fit for purpose, TUC research conducted prior to this crisis found that more than half of female respondents felt PPE actually hindered their ability to do their job. Despite this, female nurses are expected to continue working without adequate or suitable PPE. The lack of PPE has been a critical failure of the Government, however, the inability to provide suitable PPE for women particularly, represents a wider systemic fault that values women less than men.

Not only are women more likely to work in the care sector, they are also more likely to work in poorer paid jobs, which often place them on the front line. As already identified, men hold more than half of the very senior management roles in the NHS in the UK, despite making up less than 25% of the overall workforce. In nursing specifically, nearly 90% of staff are women, yet men secure around 1 in 5 of the most well paid jobs. In social care in England, 82% of staff are female, and it is estimated that around half of all deaths are taking place in care homes. This indicates a clear gendered impact, with predominately female care workers forced to work in dangerous conditions, and also having to endure the mental exhaustion of death.

Supposedly heart-warming stories have arisen in the UK media whereby predominately female carers have “moved in” to care homes to protect their own families at home, and those in their care at work. This corresponds with the goodwill identified by the RCN, as women are seen to sacrifice themselves to their work in support of those under their care (Clayton-Hathway et al., 2020, pg 5). Despite these sacrifices, social care staff remain among the poorest paid staff in society. Renowned Feminist Economist, Nancy Folbre posits, that the inherent need to care, to be motivated by concern for the wellbeing of others, reduces the bargaining power of carers, making it more difficult to unionise and strike for better wages and rights at work- this is especially apparent during the ongoing Covid-19 Crisis (Folbre, 2020). Carers have traditionally been poorly organised, particularly in comparison to other public sector workers.

On International Workers Memorial Day, parts of the UK media reported hospitals observing a minute silence to remember those who lost their lives at work. At Salford Royal hospital, near Manchester, the mental effects of this crisis were clear as the predominately female workforce were moved to tears, at the thought of their colleagues who had died. The mental health effects of this crisis are yet to be fully realised, however, the sacrifices being made for such low pay, is evidently a problem. Furthermore, it is clear that this problem rests heavy on women’s shoulders.

This situation is bleak, and is sadly replicated across other sectors. Across Europe, 62% of retail workers are women. In the wake of the crisis, retail workers have been put at particular risk, either through infection, working with the public, or because of reduced earnings as many shops have been forced to close. Overall, nearly three times as many men are able to work from home compared to women (29% and 11% respectively) (Hupkau & Petrongolo, 2020). Additionally, in other highly gender segregated sectors such as tourism and beauty the Virus has decimated the amount of work available (EIGE, 2020, pg 2). Given the high female density of these sectors this demonstrates more evidence of a significant gendered impact. It is also important to highlight the flipside with male dominated sectors such as construction which are also unable to function. However, research has shown that the current crisis is harming women’s labour market prospects more than their male counterparts (Hupkau & Petrongolo, 2020). Across all sectors of society, women are in poorly paid, non-unionised work, and in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the effects of this amount to a significant gender imbalance, with women facing greater job insecurity, working harder for less, in jobs with greater chance of infection. As Folbre argues, women are financially penalised for their sex.

The gender pay gap is a significant problem in the UK, sitting around 17.3% considering all workers. One of the most apparent divisions in response to the Coronavirus has been of class, with wealthy middle class home owners offered mortgage holidays, whilst able to work in the safety of their home, saving time on the commute (De Parle, 2020). Meanwhile poorer working class people are either forced to continue working in dangerous conditions, or are cooped up in smaller homes, struggling to pay rent, with little access to green spaces (ibid.). As the housing market continues to surge, women are priced out more and more, and without cohabiting with a male earner, both renting and getting a mortgage can be unaffordable. Evidenced by the fact that 60% of housing benefit claimants in the UK are women. This is another example of the gendered impact of this crisis.

Furthermore, women are less likely than men to have access to a car, particularly in Europe. In the face of the ongoing crisis this is a key problem as public transport has been significantly restricted. The lack of access to a car means women are either restricted from travelling for essentials, or are forced to use public transport which puts them at greater risk of infection (EIGE, 2020, pg 2). Class obviously comes into play here as well, with poorer men and women lacking access to their own car. The example of both public transport and rent highlights the wide ranging and pervasive effect of gender inequality, becoming more apparent as the Covid-19 Crisis goes on.

Additionally, one of the most crucial impacts of this ongoing crisis has been the compounding effect of the double burden whereby women have to work, both in the labour market and also domestically. Government lockdowns are having a key effect on women, restricting free time, increasing child care requirements as well as other housework tasks such as cleaning and cooking as food outlets and laundry services are forced to close. Most crucially, nearly all schools across the world have closed, with many proposing staying shut until after the summer holidays. Women spend twice as much time on childcare than men do, and school closures are therefore likely to shift the burden onto women, forced to adapt. This persistence of gendered norms highlights yet another impact of the ongoing virus, with women forced to take on the majority of domestic unpaid work.

As already discussed, government lockdowns, designed to curb the spread of the virus, are having adverse effects. One felt most acutely is domestic violence. It is estimated that almost one in three women in the UK, will suffer domestic abuse in some form throughout their lifetime, and where sex is recorded, five times as many women as men are victims of domestic abuse in criminal cases. As the lockdown has taken hold in the UK and across the world, cases of domestic abuse have surged. Domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day. Since the lockdown came into force in the UK, it is estimated that 16 women have died as a result of domestic violence. Given the significant gender imbalance of domestic violence, the sharp rise in cases of domestic abuse is a further grave example of the gendered impact of the lockdown brought in to curb the spread of the virus.

Considering all this, it is clear that there is a significant gendered impact of the ongoing Covid-19 Crisis. Women’s propensity to work in the care sector, as well as other non-unionised, poorly paid jobs where they cannot work from home, puts them at greater risk of catching the virus. The gender pay gap, also has an impact, as it does on all aspects of life. The example of supposedly unisex products, and their inadequacy to keep women safe, highlights just another area in which androcentric bias puts women at risk. Similarly, women’s use of public transport, and the norms which put the majority of domestic tasks on their shoulders are other examples of the wide-ranging gendered impact of this virus. The final example of increased domestic violence offers a further grave instance in which women are facing the greatest hardships thrown up by this crisis. Overall, it is clear that the patriarchy, in conjunction with the wider capitalist model continues to have a very real impact. This Virus, whilst creating a unique situation in many regards, is simply perpetuating the continued inequality at the heart of this corrupt system.

Peter Stoddart

For more reading on the effects of the virus from a gendered perspective, consider the references below which were of use when writing this article.

Reference List

  1. Clayton-Hathway, K., Laure Humbert, A., Griffiths, H., McIlroy, R. and Schutz, S., 2020. Gender And Nursing As A Profession Valuing Nurses And Paying Them Their Worth. London: Royal College of Nursing.
  2. Criardo-Perez, C., 2019. One Size Fits Men. In: C. Criardo-Perez, ed., Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Random House: London.
  3. DeParle, J., 2020. The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space And Privacy. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/coronavirus-poverty-privacy.html&gt; [Accessed 30 April 2020].
  4. EIGE, 2020. Coronavirus Puts Women In The Frontline. Vilnius: European Institute for Gender Equality.
  5. England, P. and Folbre, N., 1999. The Cost of Caring. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561(1), pp.39-51.
  6. Folbre, N., 1995. “Holding hands at midnight”: The paradox of caring labor. Feminist Economics, 1(1), pp.73-92.
  7. Folbre, N., 2012. Should Women Care Less? Intrinsic Motivation and Gender Inequality. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 50(4), pp.597-619.
  8. Folbre, N., 2020. The Care Theory of Value. [online] Care Talk. Available at: <https://blogs.umass.edu/folbre/2020/04/08/the-care-theory-of-value/
  9. Hupkau, C. and Petrongolo, B., 2020. COVID-19 And Gender Gaps: Latest Evidence And Lessons From The UK | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal. [online] Voxeu.org. Available at: <https://voxeu.org/article/covid-19-and-gender-gaps-latest-evidence-and-lessons-uk&gt; [Accessed 29 April 2020].
  10. Sengupta, S. and Sachdeva, S., 2017. From Double Burden Of Women To A “Double Boon”: Balancing Unpaid Care Work And Paid Work. New Delhi: Growth and Equal Opportunities for Women programme (GrOW).

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