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Women and the pandemic

Even before coronavirus, women faced many inequalities, including in their pay and employment, their mental health and the division of household labour. On many measures, these have only worsened over the past year, leading to calls for a women’s strategy to mitigate the damage.

Newsletter from 12 March 2021

This week started with International Women’s Day, an opportunity to think about how we can forge a gender equal world. The Economics Observatory contributed to this conversation with a week of reflections on the damaging effect of the pandemic on gender equality in the UK – the impact on women in developing countries will be a focus for next week.

This week also saw the re-opening of schools in England, which will have brought relief to many working mothers who have been juggling work and home schooling. Being able to socialise in-person with friends will also be important for teenage girls, who have experienced the biggest declines in their mental health during the periods of lockdown and school closures.

There are now growing calls for an economic strategy for women to prevent the pandemic damaging their pay and employment prospects over the longer term. The tragic disappearance of Sarah Everard also highlights the ever-present threat of violence that blights the lives of so many women both inside and outside their homes.

Men and women’s employment

Susan Harkness (University of Bristol) discussed the latest evidence on men and women’s employment using data from Understanding Society, the large-scale household survey. Overall, women have not suffered more than men – similar numbers have lost their jobs and been put on furlough. But focusing on parents shows that the experiences of fathers and mothers have been strikingly different – see Figure 1.

Mothers experienced a bigger fall in their working hours at the start of the pandemic and have seen less bounce back in the second half of 2020. Lone mothers have been even worse hit than mothers with a partner.

Figure 1: Changes in share working positive working hours (age>25)

Source: Understanding Society

Childcare and housework

At the start of the pandemic, there was optimism that the increased burden of childcare brought about as a result of the closure of schools might be shared equally, heralding a new era in the division of domestic labour. But while many men have spent more time with their children and some have taken on new primary carer roles, the lion’s share of home schooling and increased housework has fallen to women.

The government’s much criticised ‘stay home’ advert depicting women doing home schooling and housework has been the reality of lockdown in most households with children. Women have had to juggle home schooling and housework with their paid work to a far greater extent than men. This will have damaging effects on their productivity and future pay unless employers take action.

A concerted women’s strategy may require more women to be at the table when political decisions are taken. In the UK, the pandemic response has been dominated by men. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the government’s regular coronavirus briefing sessions: only one of out of 67 during the past year has been fronted by a woman.

Young women

Teenagers and young women began the pandemic with the worst mental health of any gender/age group in the population and have experienced the biggest decline in mental health since it began – see Figure 2. There are clear gender differences in the pattern of mental health over the past year: young women suffered particularly during periods of lockdowns, highlighting the effect of limited opportunities for social interactions and an increased reliance on social media.

Figure 2: 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.

Gemma Williams discussed another issue facing young women in lockdown – period poverty. She reports that more than one in ten girls aged 14-21 were unable to afford period products and were using makeshift alternatives, such as toilet roll, socks, other fabric and newspaper/paper.

The ‘tampon tax’ (the 5% VAT rate on tampons and other period products) was abolished in the UK from January 2021. But there is no sign that this has yet been passed on to consumers in lower prices – and it would in any case have a very small effect.

Gemma emphasises that tackling period poverty is about more than making period products more affordable. It is about providing the right level of access, support and information, and removing the stigma and shame around periods that is still prevalent.

Violence against women

The week draws to a close with the terrible news that police investigating the disappearance of Sarah Everard have found human remains. This is a tragic incident and an awful reminder of the violence that is perpetrated against women.

Many people reacted in anger when the police investigating the case called on women to stay safe and not go out alone. For some women, staying home is not a safe option. The pandemic has been associated with a surge in domestic violence driven by economic losses and increased time spent at home.

The fact is, though, that high-profile violent crimes do cause more people to stay at home. A study by Katharina Janke, Carol Propper and Michael Shields looked at the impact of violent crime on people’s outside activity. Focusing on the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence in 2009 and the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010, they found a 15% decline in walking in the immediate aftermath of both events. A violent crime against one woman affects many more.  

In the last couple of days, many women have shared their experiences of how they feel unsafe going out at night. And a recent survey by UN Women found that 97% of young women in the UK had been sexually harassed and 80% reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces. Violence against women not only has immediate devastating consequences but the threat of violence also constrains women’s lives in profound ways.

At the end of a week established to celebrate women, much more needs to be done to tackle these challenges faced by women and girls and to ensure that the pandemic does not leave a legacy of widening gender inequalities.

Author: Sarah Smith, University of Bristol and Economics Observatory Lead Editor
Editor's note: In the original version, the author of the study on the effects of violent crime on people's activity was incorrectly listed as Mark Sheilds instead of Michael Shields.
If you or anyone you know are affected by domestic abuse and are unable to leave your home to access support due to COVID-19, there is support available on the Refuge website or the freephone, 24 hour National Domestic Abuse helpline: 0808 2000 247.
Photo by Chelsi Peter for Pexels
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