Choose to challenge: Exploring how COVID-19 has impacted on women

Monday 8th March marks this year’s International Women’s Day for which the theme is Choose to Challenge.

The day aims to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity, and fundraise for female-focused charities.

It seems to me that it’s fitting to talk about women’s equality and the need for gender parity at this time. 

The COVID pandemic has thrown a harsh spotlight on the issue. 

In November 2020, UN Women released a new report: Whose time to care: Unpaid care and domestic work during COVID-19 which warned that the pandemic could “wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality in just 12 months”

It’s a shocking realisation.

Having looked into some of the stats around how the pandemic has impacted on women, I found the following:

Healthcare risks and inequalities

  • Women comprise 70% of the global health workforce and yet hold just 25% of its leadership roles (Source: World Health Organisation).
  • An article by National Geographic discussed how, although men are more likely to suffer from severe COVID-19 complications, women face a much greater risk of contracting the disease because they make up such a large part of the healthcare workforce.

It’s also worth noting that, according to the World Health Organisation, women are more likely to be affected by personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. Also, PPE was designed by men predominantly for men and full body gear doesn’t always fit women properly or take their menstrual needs into account.

Employment issues and challenges

  • 77% of women working during the pandemic have been in jobs considered ‘high risk’ of contracting COVID (Source: Catalyst).
  • Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses during the pandemic. 
  • The Guardian referred to the UK’s working mothers as the ‘sacrificial lambs’ of COVID, as approximately 50% of this group have been unable to access the childcare they need to return to work.
  • The same Guardian report showed that, by July 2020, 67% of working mums had had to reduce their hours to cover childcare, while 74% of self-employed mums had seen their incomes plummet. In both cases, this was largely due to women having to take on the lion’s share of homeschooling.
  • Another Guardian report showed that, in homes where both parents had been furloughed, women were spending an hour and a quarter longer per day looking after their children than men.
  • According to the National Women’s Law Center in America, 865,000 women dropped out of the US workforce in September 2020 alone, compared to 200,000 men. 
  • Data compiled by Catalyst suggests that three million of the women in the US who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic will not be recorded in unemployment figures, making them some of the invisible casualties of COVID.

There are a number of reasons that women’s jobs have been impacted so much by COVID. Many women work in people-facing roles within the hospitality, leisure, retail, health and education sectors. These are roles that just haven’t been possible during periods of lockdown or with social distancing measures in force.

At the same time, the closure of schools and childcare settings has placed heavy demand on women to step into the breach and fit their jobs around their children, where possible.  

Care responsibilities

As a single parent, I have always been the sole parent-carer to my son, Elijah. I know how time- and emotionally-intensive this role is. 

I currently work seven days a week managing Elijah’s large care team without any payment or official recognition of the role.

As such, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the demand for unpaid care in families is a major contributor to the extent to which women have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

Even prior to COVID-19, 606 million working-age women around the world were engaged in full-time unpaid care work, compared to 41 million men. 

Apparently, women were also doing around three-quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid care and domestic work carried out around the world every day. This equates to approximately four hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work per woman every day, compared with one hour and 23 minutes per man.

According to the UN Women’s Whose Time to Care report, these figures are estimated to have doubled since COVID-19 began.

Unpaid care work is often referred to as the care economy or the reproductive economy. More critical commentators refer to it as the hypocrisy economy because people talk about empowering women with opportunities to work outside the home in the paid economy without encouraging or enabling men to take on more of the care economy to spread the workload and opportunities more equally.

As we’ve seen above, COVID-19 has just amplified these inequalities.

Health and social services have been furloughed, slashed or stopped altogether, meaning that women have no choice but to plug this gap. We are playing an essential role in keeping the economy afloat by providing unpaid care provision. The paid economy simply wouldn’t be able to function without women. 

The importance of International Women’s Day

The stats above barely scratch the surface of how COVID-19 has impacted on gender roles and gender equality around the world. I haven’t even touched on how the inequalities widen even further for black women and women in minority ethnic groups (you might find this report from Catalyst a good starting point to explore the racial inequalities of COVID further).

International Women’s Day’s Choose to Challenge message reminds us that we need to challenge inequalities and celebrate women’s achievements and voices.

Somehow, as the world struggles to recover from COVID, women have to claim a seat at the table and help to shape a future that recognises their needs and contributions.  

I am interested in this from a care perspective. Yes, I am a parent-carer 24/7 but should I be managing a team of approximately 20 staff seven days a week without days off?

International Women’s Day reminds me that it’s right to challenge the inequality in the care economy and how I’m affected personally by it.

If women ruled the world…

Here’s an interesting fact to leave you with.

Countries with women in leadership positions have suffered six times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths than countries with male-led governments. They have also flattened the curve sooner and been able to reopen their economies quicker.

We need more female voices in public and professional spaces.

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