Growing up in the 60s, I cut my feminist teeth on books such as Hannah Gavron’s The Captive Wife and Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, which analysed the competing roles of women as homemakers or at work. I saw these conflicts at first hand in my own family life. Politics was an overwhelmingly male preserve, and a posh male preserve at that. Until Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964, old Etonians (Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home) had been in charge of the government for almost my entire life.
After years of progress, much of it slow and hard-won, it now feels like we’re slipping back to that era, with Etonians in charge again too. Women have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and largely excluded from decision-making. It is possible that these two facts are connected.
Where are the women?
Only four government departments are run by women, and one of those has just had her department abolished. This invisibility has been further reinforced by the lack of women in frontline roles during the Covid-19 outbreak, despite their dominance in health professions, including epidemiology.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) lists 86 members or contributors to its meetings, of which only 26 are women. Many of these are leading figures in their field, yet they hardly featured in the daily press briefings; men became the public face of these and some have become household names. One of the few women to make it to the podium, chief nurse Ruth May, was summarily dropped from the line-up after she refused to express support for Dominic Cummings. It took three weeks before a female minister, Priti Patel, presented a briefing, and she is hardly known for her sympathies on women’s issues.
Worldwide, the effectiveness of women leaders during the pandemic has been widely praised in terms of communication, leadership style and outcomes, while the ten worst affected countries are all led by men. Compare the macho blustering of Boris Johnson with the empathetic style of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, or the (truly) science-based approach of Angela Merkel.
Unsafe spaces: violence against women
Alarmingly, domestic violence has increased by 20 per cent globally during lockdown. A report by MPs revealed that calls to a national domestic abuse helpline rose by half and fatal attacks doubled during the first weeks of lockdown: 14 women were killed, the largest number in a three-week period for 11 years. Owing to quarantining measures, some women’s shelters have had to reduce the numbers of spaces and some services have been suspended altogether. According to Human Rights Watch, migrant women and those from Black and Asian communities already lack access to such services, and the pandemic has exacerbated this.
Despite advances in the 50 years since the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap for all employees still stands at 17.3 per cent. During lockdown, this situation has worsened and threatens to overturn the progress made. A recent survey by the IFS has shown that mothers were more likely to be doing two more hours of childcare and housework per day than fathers during lockdown, and on average only one third of uninterrupted paid work hours compared to men. Women working from home are far more likely to have that work interrupted by childcare than men, as a recent BBC video demonstrated.
The economic impact of the pandemic as lockdown eases is also falling more heavily on women, who are already more likely to be in low-paid work, often as key health and care workers. During lockdown, 5 per cent more women were furloughed or lost their jobs than men; BAME and migrant women are at even greater risk. Young women are over-represented in areas such as leisure, retail and hospitality, which are all under severe threat. Although unemployment will affect men badly too, it is estimated that women are one and a half times more likely to lose or have lost their jobs than men.
These impacts build on top of previous inequalities of gender, race and disability. A recent report argues that the government ‘has failed to take account of caring responsibilities and existing issues of low pay, insecure employment and poverty.’ Childcare provision has historically been inadequate and over-priced, and has become limited further during the pandemic. With uncertainties about schools re-opening, it is likely that additional disruptions will continue into the autumn and put women’s jobs even more at risk.
Women have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus outbreak and its repercussions, setting back women’s rights in employment and in the home considerably. The absence of women in leadership roles during the last four months, and the government’s failure to address the issues affecting women, risk decades of progress being undone.
This is not just a UK-based issue, but has similar repercussions globally. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) emphasises the need for governments worldwide to extend financial support to women, in order to counter the damage brought about by Covid-19. In particular, they advocate investment in education, health and childcare, with incentives for small businesses and parental leave.
Having spent a large part of my working life fighting for women’s rights, the huge setback in gender equality as a result of the coronavirus has been immensely discouraging, and I am not confident that the current government will prioritise any of the measures recommended by the IMF and pressure groups. Let’s hope that it’s not another 50 years before we get back to where we were before Covid-19.
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