Today is International Women’s Day – and in England, it coincides with the re-opening of schools. Many working mothers will have the most to celebrate in terms of reclaiming their time. But the pandemic has damaged the lives of women of all ages.
International Women’s Day comes a year after the pandemic hit the UK – 12 months in which underlying gender inequalities have got worse. Covid-19 – and the lockdown measures put in place to contain its spread – have hit women harder than men, and, as Figure 1 shows, women of all ages (left) have experienced bigger declines in their mental health than men (right) since March 2020.
Figure 1: Changes in mental health
Source: Data from Understanding Society, analysed by Ben Etheridge and Lisa Spantig (both University of Essex).
Note: The chart shows the change in standardised (inverted) General Health Questionnaire Score (GHQ) score compared to 2019. See further analysis of the data here.
Teenage girls and young women – a mental health crisis
Covid-19 has worsened the mental health crisis among young women in the UK. Before the pandemic, young women (aged 16-30) had the worst mental health of any age/gender group in the population. In the last 12 months, this same group has experienced a bigger fall in their mental health than any other. The mental health of teenage girls and young women is now a serious health issue.
School and university closures, high levels of unemployment and increased uncertainty have adversely affected all young people, but young women’s mental health has suffered more than their male peers during lockdowns.
Women have also been more likely than men to lose their jobs and many are in demanding roles as key workers. Further, not all women have faced the same challenges - certain groups including ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and in poverty have been more adversely affected. Overall, for women the loss of social interactions and increased exposure to social media pressure have been big factors.
That young women suffered particularly during periods of lockdown is clear from Figure 1. Young women saw an improvement in their mental health when lockdown eased in the summer of 2020, but they experienced an even bigger fall during the second lockdown in November 2020. The decline in mental health among young men has been overall smaller, and less affected by lockdown.
Understanding Society data, on which Figure 1 is based, are not yet available to see the impact of the third lockdown. But other survey evidence suggests that three-quarters of young people (aged 16-25) have found the third lockdown harder still, and nearly half believe that there will be long-term effects.
Working mothers – an increased burden of care
The government was widely criticised for its sexist ‘stay home’ advert depicting women doing home schooling and housework, but this has been the reality of lockdown in most households with young children. The pandemic has revealed stubbornly persistent gender stereotyping in the division of domestic labour, and shown that men and women are not equal when it comes to unpaid childcare and housework.
Before the pandemic, women did more than 60% of home childcare. When schools and childcare closed during the first lockdown, they took on roughly the same share of the (massively increased burden of) additional care.
In addition, evidence from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicates that women have taken on even more of the burden of home schooling during the 2021 lockdown. Two-thirds of mothers compared with half of fathers reported that they had personally home schooled their children. Half of those who had done home schooling reported that it had negatively affected their wellbeing.
In order to take on the increased burden of childcare, women have made sacrifices – opting for furlough or redundancy, reducing paid hours, taking holiday and unpaid leave, and giving up sleep to juggle around the clock. The re-opening of schools in England coincides with International Women’s Day - and it will be women who have the most to celebrate in terms of reclaiming their time.
But even after the kids have gone back to school, there will likely be long-term negative effects. The childcare system is more fragile than it was pre-pandemic and many childcare providers face an uncertain future. For mothers, moving into part-time work is likely to be associated with lower hourly earnings and reduced year-on-year pay increases.
There is also evidence that the productivity of women with caring responsibilities has been hit – for example, women academics have published fewer new research papers than men – and this will affect their future pay and promotion prospects.
Gender pay gap reporting by companies was suspended for a year in 2020 and has been delayed again this year. But it is vital that the reporting continues, not least as the evidence suggests that the first round of reporting had positive effects.
Older women – alone and lonely
Before the pandemic, older women (those aged 70 and above) enjoyed a relatively high level of mental health compared with the population as a whole. But they have experienced one of the biggest falls – far greater than among older men.
An important factor in explaining the decline in wellbeing among older women is likely to be a high level of bereavement since older men have the highest risk of death from Covid-19. Deaths from the disease have been found to be associated with a higher level of grief than deaths from other causes, mainly because of not being able to visit loved ones before death to say goodbye. The costs of grief have received relatively little attention from economists (with some notable exceptions), but they are likely to be important for this group.
Another key factor behind the decline in mental health of older women is the effect of social isolation. Women make up two-thirds of those aged 70 and above who live alone. This group is likely to have experienced increased loneliness, particularly if they were shielding because of underlying health conditions. Research also suggests that women experience a greater decline in mental health from the loss of social interaction than men even when they live with others.
A way forward
Tackling gender inequalities must be on the political agenda as the UK begins to look beyond the pandemic. There needs to be a roadmap for dealing with the mental health effects, for valuing unpaid care to ensure that women do not lose out in the workplace, and for putting in place proper systems of care for both children and older people who are isolated and alone.
This may require more women to be at the table when key decisions are taken. The different responses to Covid-19 across countries have provided a unique opportunity to learn whether the gender of leaders matters. Researchers comparing Covid-19 deaths and cases in male- and female-led countries that are otherwise similar found that women leaders typically reacted sooner than male leaders, locking down earlier, with the effect of reducing deaths.
In the UK, the political leadership of the pandemic response has been notably male. Out of 67 coronavirus briefings, 66 have been led by men – Boris Johnson (28), Matt Hancock (16), Dominic Raab (9), Rishi Sunak (3), Oliver Dowden (3), Robert Jenrick (2), George Eustice (2), Alok Sharma (1), Gavin Williamson (1) and Grant Shapps (1) – compared with a single female-led briefing – by Priti Patel.
And while we will never know whether the UK’s Covid-19 experience would have been different had Theresa May still been in power, on International Women’s Day we need these male leaders to show a serious commitment to tackling gender inequalities.
Where can I find out more?
- The gender gap in mental wellbeing during the Covid-19 outbreak – evidence from the UK: Ben Etheridge and Lisa Spantig document the decline in mental wellbeing during the pandemic, and the outsized impact on women.
- Women bear brunt of coronavirus economic shutdown in UK and US: Study showing that women in the UK and the United States have been more likely to lose their jobs or experience a reduction in earnings since the arrival of Covid-19.
- Baby steps: the gender division of childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic: Almudena Sevilla and Sarah Smith report that families with children under the age of 12 have been doing the equivalent of a working week in childcare, with mothers bearing most of the burden.
- How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? Report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies details the changes and sacrifices made by fathers and particularly mothers during the pandemic to balance childcare and work.
- New study highlights ‘exceptional challenges’ of bereavement during COVID-19 pandemic: Research from Cardiff University and the University of Bristol shows that many have felt a lack of support following a loved one’s death.
Who are experts on this question?
- Sarah Smith
- Gabriella Conti
- Susan Harkness
- Marina Della Giusta
- Barbara Petrongolo
- Monica Costa Dias
- Almudena Sevilla
- Lisa Spantig