How COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our female workforce

How COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our female workforce
08 March 2021
Icon of 3 women and virus

Today marks International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the achievements of women, but also to highlight the continuing gender bias woman face. A recent lunch and learn session brought colleagues across Audit Wales together to discuss various gender bias issues women are facing. As part of our commitment to continually developing and improving the way in which we work, we released our Equality Report 2019-20 [opens in new window] in December 2020. As part of that report, we have acknowledged that we still have work to do to reduce our own gender pay gap. The discussions we had over gender bias has led us to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the female workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had the largest global impact since World War II. For almost a year, our ‘normal’ lives have been put on hold: we are physically distant from our friends and family, we are spending most of our time at home and ‘zoom fatigue’ is a ‘new word suggestion’ for the Collins Dictionary.

At the start of the pandemic, the world raced to understand how COVID is transmitted. Within weeks, furlough schemes were introduced, and employees were increasingly persuaded to work from home where possible. Whilst the vast and various effects of COVID-19 continue to impact the entire UK, evidence suggests that pre-COVID gender inequalities have led to disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on women.

The effects of COVID-19 on women are countless and therefore in this blog I have focused on two areas:

  • How rates of unpaid care by women are increasing and the damaging knock-on effect this is having on gender equality in the workforce.
  • How women are working in face-to-face keyworker roles more than men and why this means we need to invest in gender-specific research.

I have then discussed how we can #ChooseToChallenge pre-COVID attitudes towards women in society and the workforce. Through this, we can rebuild a post-COVID future which is more equal for women and, consequently, of more benefit to us all.

 

Pre-COVID, women were doing over 3 times more unpaid care than men. Now, that figure has doubled

On average, every day in the UK, women spend four hours and 25 minutes on unpaid care work. This is even more startling when comparing to the male average of one hour and 23 minutes. Worldwide, 41 million men undertake unpaid care work on a full-time basis – which is just 6.77% of the 606 million women also completing unpaid care on the same basis. Whilst this gender discrepancy was apparent long before the COVID crisis, there are suggestions that the difference in unpaid work figures between genders is now even higher – with some sources suggesting it has “at least doubled”[opens in new window].

 

But what exactly does this mean for women?

The unpaid work completed by women frequently covers the cost of sustaining families (such as looking after children, doing the housework or caring for elderly relatives). Studies completed during COVID-19 researching opposite-gender parents have revealed that mothers are 47% more likely to have lost their job than fathers during the COVID crisis. Additionally, during lockdown, half of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work is unexpectedly side-tracked to unpaid work (such as childcare). This is only the case for fathers 33% of the time. To put this into perspective, mothers are only doing 33% of the uninterrupted paid work of fathers throughout the pandemic [opens in new window]. This isn’t to suggest that women are being paid for work they aren’t doing, but instead they are being interrupted almost constantly by unpaid care duties (which is breaking up their working day) whilst men are more likely to have large portions of time left to work without disturbance.

The disproportionate care burden during COVID is resulting in women leaving the workforce at much higher rates than men – but they are also not returning to paid work (in addition to also being more likely to have lost, quit or been furloughed from their job [opens in new window]) which will be disastrous for gender equality. For instance, in most companies, the gender pay gap exists due to a large percentage of top pay brackets being filled by men. Now women are leaving the workforce due to even higher rates of unpaid care, this will have lower women’s average income and foil their promotion prospects: preventing them from reaching higher positions in companies and therefore increasing the gender pay gap.

With unemployment, furlough and unpaid work rates being far higher for women than for men, the impact of the pandemic in relation to the female workforce is likely to be significant. Socially, this will also have dire consequences for women’s wellbeing, independence, and economic progress [opens in new window].

 

Women in paid roles are more likely to work in face-to-face roles on the frontline and it’s impacting their psychological wellbeing

During the COVID crisis, female workers have been disproportionately working in roles requiring face-to-face interaction on the frontline. Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) [opens in new window] reveal that the following occupations have the highest number of deaths (between 9th March and 28th December 2020) involving COVID-19 for women aged 20-64 years old in England and Wales:

  • Care workers and home carers (240)
  • Sales and retail assistants (111)
  • Nurses (110)
  • Cleaners and domestics (95)

In contrast, for men of the same age and during the same period, the jobs with the highest number of deaths were:

  • Taxi/cab drivers and chauffeurs (209)
  • Security guards and related occupations (140)
  • Large goods vehicle drivers (118)
  • Elementary storage occupations (111)

For women, the occupations with the highest death figures are also those where women are overrepresented. These occupations are also keyworker job roles in which employees are required to have higher levels of face-to-face interaction with patients or customers than other keyworker roles (such as delivery drivers).

Even when focusing on keyworker sectors, females are working more in frontline roles requiring face-to-face interaction (40% of female keyworkers work in health and social care and 25% in education and child care) whereas males are working more in roles involving production and delivery (22% of male keyworkers work in food and other necessary goods and 14% in transport [opens in new window]).

The idea that female workers are at higher risk of infection can be further supported by the fact that women in Wales (aged 20 to 69) have accounted for 55.4% of cases (73,573 cases) whilst men accounted for 44.5% of cases (59,070 cases) at the time of writing [opens in new window].

It is worth noting that generally, the risk of death appears to be higher for men than women. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that the risks associated with face-to-face roles during the pandemic has resulted in people in such roles experiencing higher levels of psychological distress. There is also evidence to suggest that simply being female is a risk factor for COVID-19 having a considerable impact on the psychological wellbeing of frontline hospital staff [opens in new window].

In face-to-face roles where the occupational risk of death is higher, to suggest there will be a damaging effect on the mental health and wellbeing of such employees is a well-grounded conclusion [opens in new window].

Put simply:

  • Female keyworkers are more likely to work in face-to-face roles during COVID-19 than male keyworkers.
  • Working in face-to-face roles brings greater exposure to health risks at work.
  • Being in face-to-face roles therefore has a considerable impact on psychological wellbeing.
  • If more female keyworkers are working in face-to-face roles, their physical health is at greater risk, and their psychological wellbeing declines

 

What has COVID taught us about gender inequalities in the workforce and how can we improve?

 

Recognising unpaid care as a vital part of society… and adapting to it

The COVID-19 crisis has taught us a range of lessons – from the value of technology to our reliance on keyworkers. In the run-up to International Women’s Week, I have reflected on the impact the pandemic is having on women, and why. COVID-19 has got into the cracks of pre-existing gender-inequalities and made them deeper and wider.

Globally, before COVID-19, we were failing women by claiming that working hours were inflexible. Women were, and still are, carrying out unpaid care roles at alarming rates – but this work remains largely unrecognised. If we begin to appreciate such roles as the fundamental ‘cogs’ of society that they are, we can begin to adapt our workplaces. We can begin to make the gap between men and women in the workforce a bit smaller.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has opened our eyes to the value of flexible working: it is no longer about working 9-5 but, instead, the focus has shifted to productivity. Post-COVID, do we need to make office working compulsory? Do we need to return to a strict 9-5 day, 37.5 hour week? Instead, can we continue to be open to allowing employees to focus on being productive and working flexibly to accommodate unpaid care roles? Ultimately, can we #ChooseToChallenge societal norms and encourage men to take on some of the unpaid care burden?

These unpaid care roles are essential in our society and by failing to adapt, employers will continue to suppress women’s abilities to progress in the workplace. If we cannot support the unpaid care roles undertaken by women by allowing flexible working patterns, we will continue to lose valuable women from the workforce – meaning they will never be able to participate fully in the economy (even though their participation makes complete economic sense). Ultimately, this also means the gender pay gap will never close and the cracks which were created long before COVID will never be repaired.

 

Invest in wellbeing initiatives that are supported by research investigating gender

Levels of anxiety and depression have been found to be significantly higher for women during the pandemic [opens in new window]. Additionally, negative associations between COVID-19 and life satisfaction, daily happiness and sense of purpose is significantly worse for women than men [opens in new window]. If more women are also in face-to-face keyworker roles, and face-to-face keyworkers have been experiencing a greater decline in psychological wellbeing, there must be more targeted support for women in such roles. Whilst a lot of research has been conducted during the COVID-19 crisis, with many disaggregating data by gender, little research has been done on how the results of these studies can be converted into real-word support for women [opens in new window]. Simply acknowledging that male and female keyworkers have differing psychological responses to the impacts of COVID-19 is not enough: we must research women’s experiences throughout face-to-face frontline worker roles and use the findings to provide informed support.

The effects of COVID-19 on psychological wellbeing for face-to-face key workers is likely to be long-lasting. If we do not implement gender-specific wellbeing initiatives to those who have been most effected, we are again at risk of losing valuable women from the workforce after they continue to repeatedly risk their own lives to save others. We must provide keyworkers with the tools to help improve their physical and psychological wellbeing by understanding their issues and their needs.

Whilst this blog has covered two themes relevant to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women, there are more issues that have not been covered (gender-based violence, the interaction between class and gender on job loss, female self-employed workers or female workers employed by self-employed individuals and more [opens in new window]). It is apparent now, more than ever, that we are not doing enough to tackle gender-related issues.

As dreadful as the COVID-19 crisis has been, through shattering the foundations of society as we knew it to its core, we can use the lessons we have learned about gender inequalities to motivate us to build stronger foundations. A foundation that is equal for us all.

 

About the author

Rachel Brown

Rachel Brown loves spending time outdoors and challenging herself to do new things. She joined Audit Wales after finishing her Psychology Degree at Cardiff University and recently completed an apprenticeship qualification in Data Analytics. Rachel successfully secured a job role as a Data Analytics Officer at Audit Wales after her apprenticeship and still enjoys being able to learn on-the-job every day in a career that she loves!