Updated: Mar 18, 2021
In a year when the world’s population has faced more collective challenges than ever before, the COVID-19 coronavirus has had a negative impact on gender parity. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is to #choosetochallenge that inequality and create a more inclusive world. From challenge comes change.
International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Born out of activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe, the day has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women's rights and participation in the political and economic arenas.
At this stage of the pandemic, some alarming statistics are emerging about the disproportionate impact it has had on women in all aspects of their lives. From the United Nations to the Fawcett Society, many concerns are being raised that we may have been set back a decade, or even as much as a quarter of a century, in our pursuit for equality.
Let’s start at home. Even before the pandemic women were doing more unpaid work such as childcare and housework - almost double the number of hours per day than men, at more than four compared to their two hours 20 minutes.(1) Lockdown has meant that there are more bodies at home, more cooking and cleaning and no additional support in terms of schooling and childcare options. An Ipsos poll for UN Women showed that 17% of UK women agreed strongly with the statement that “I have had to take a lot more responsibility for household chores and care of children and family during this pandemic”(2) . But this may be an underestimation. Prior research shows women underestimate and men overestimate the time and energy they expend caring for others. A poll reported in the New York Times, conducted across the US, found that 20% of men said that they were “mostly or wholly responsible” for unpaid care tasks during lockdown, but only 2% of women agreed with them. It’s even trickling down to children; according to a survey by children’s charity TheirWorld, girls between 14-24 are spending significantly more time cooking, cleaning and looking after siblings than boys(3). When you factor in that 71% of British women are also trying to hold down paid jobs, this is a huge strain. So speaking of work…
The Fawcett Society have said that women are much more likely than men to lose work or be burdened with childcare in the COVID-19 crisis. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found, in early March, that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit, and 14% were more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis. Additionally pregnant women and new mothers in particular may have faced discriminatory and potentially unlawful treatment. The Society indicates that this could lead to a further increase in the gender pay gap and described the UK as “being at a ‘coronavirus crossroads’ that could impact the progress of workplace equality for years”. More alarming is that a report from McKinsey & Global shows that women make up 39% of the global workforce, but account for 54% of job losses (3). This indicates that women’s employment is dropping faster than average, even allowing for the fact that women and men work in different sectors. If this tide isn’t stemmed they estimate that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.
Women are also disproportionately represented in industries suffering the greatest decline in the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality and social work. Female-owned businesses dominate in the health and beauty sector, childcare and admin support services. Some of these just haven’t been able to operate at all throughout the pandemic, as the women who own and operate them have struggled to allocate the time due to the demands and distractions of homeschooling, where they are doing most of the heavy lifting (67% vs 52% for men). The Women’s Enterprise Policy Group (WEPG), a coalition of researchers, women entrepreneurs and business support groups, has warned of a “tsunami” of job losses and business closures if the government fails to address the extra challenges faced by women entrepreneurs. Female-owned businesses contribute £105bn to the UK each year. They have the potential to contribute an additional £250bn if women started and scaled a business at the same rates as men(4). So what is the government doing?
We have all heard Boris banging his drum about Build Back Better. But the soft underbelly of this is that it is a male-focused policy, created by men, in a male-dominated government. Remember this?
An ad quickly retracted, as it looked like a leftover from the 1950s. How can they be so tone deaf that in 2021 this was considered anywhere near acceptable?
The support packages being created are centred around male-dominated industries such as construction and aviation, with a disproportionate focus on infrastructure. Essentially, this is designed to be a quick win to positively hit the unemployment statistics for a government that has generally made a mess on the carpet throughout this whole crisis. A report by the Commons Women and Inequalities Committee said that while ministers acted quickly to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits, gender disparities were ignored in the beginning. This is now persisting in plans for the future. The report recommends strongly that an effective way to bring gender parity back to industry is to invest heavily in childcare for working mothers, enabling them to take advantage of opportunities that men have. Claire Walker, British Chambers of Commerce co-executive director, stressed: "More must be done to ensure women are able to balance caring and work commitments, retain their jobs, progress in their careers and contribute to our economic recovery. Economic growth will depend on access to high-quality, affordable childcare."
If you have the time and energy, you can read the government’s full economic package proposal here, and you can see for yourself, that it is a male-driven ‘industrial’ plan.
So, a lot of facts and figures, none of which are particularly positive for women and we can conclude that the whole situation is super stressful. So what has been the impact of COVID-19 on women’s mental and physical health? We all discovered Zoom big time at the start of the first lockdown last March and for a while it was novel to do our regular classes online in our living room. Joe Wicks made a fortune out of a new show doing exercises for kids and we all absolutely HAD to go out for our designated hour of exercise. But soon the enthusiasm dwindled and life pressures took their toll. According to a study by Women in Sport, almost a third of women could not prioritise exercise during lockdown because they had too much to do for others.
With a tiny glimmer of light, in the form of 12th April, twinkling for gym openings, women are still disadvantaged and discriminated against. According to ukactive – which represents more than 4,000 gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools – women make up 54% of gym members. Furthermore, 76% of those at group classes are women, with the most popular workouts being spinning, aerobics and yoga. In April, you will be able to go to the gym to ‘work out’ but not take any classes. Professor Greg Whyte, a physical activity expert, says: “Women are being left behind as a result of lockdown closures of the leisure and fitness sector. Swimming and group exercise play a central role in the opportunity to enhance physical, mental, emotional and social health. If the goal is to enhance the efficacy of the vaccine, improve population health, protect the NHS and save lives, it is vital that women have access to the leisure and fitness sector, with its proven safety record, as soon as possible.” Even the visibility of elite women’s sport has been sidelined after governing bodies (mainly run by men!) prioritised the return of more lucrative men’s competitions.
There is also a safety issue to factor in. There have been many instances in the pandemic where women have been harassed and heckled when exercising outside. In one of the most high profile incidents, GB athlete Sarah McDonald, reported that she was groped on a training run by a cyclist. Shocking but not surprising to those of us of the female gender.
None of this is good for mental health. There have been so many more strains on women throughout the crisis. From additional demands around the home, homeschooling, lack of childcare, higher job losses and isolation through not being able to group exercise, the mental toll has been more significant. A study by the Mental Health Foundation shows that women were much more likely to report feeling lonely, hopeless or anxious than men(5). Data is still emerging about the pandemic’s effects on gender disparity around mental health and it will be a while before we really understand the true impact on women.
If you’ve got this far, it is no surprise that this year International Women’s Day is asking you to call out unfairness when it comes to gender. #choosetochallenge should mobilise us to take positive steps to advance women across all areas of society because COVID-19 has set us back years. We all need to take responsibility for each other and push a gender parity agenda.