Women under 'massive pressure'

On International Women’s Day, UniteLIVE investigates the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic on women

Reading time: 12 min

The global coronavirus pandemic has spared no one – even for those who have not had the virus, every single one of us has been touched by the pandemic’s wider social and economic effects.

But in a world plagued by entrenched inequalities, some will have borne the brunt of the pandemic burden more than others. On International Women’s Day today (March 8), we look at the disproportionate impact that pandemic has had on women, which, as the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee recently highlighted, “risks turning back the clock on gender equality”.

In February, the Committee published a report about the pandemic’s gendered economic impact. The Committee highlighted that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities for women as whole, and especially for pregnant women, new mothers, the self-employed, women claiming benefits and those working in the professional childcare sector.

‘Caring responsibilities always land on women’s doorsteps’

As a single mother working in the childcare sector and claiming Universal Credit, Unite Registered Childminders (RCM) branch secretary Caroline Rice has keenly felt the reality of the pandemic’s gendered impact.

“Women are under such massive pressure right now and that’s down to the fact that caring responsibilities almost always land on women’s doorsteps,” she told UniteLive. “Homeschooling has been especially difficult, especially for single parents, who are almost all women. We’re now both educators and workers. We’ve had to step up for our children while also having to manage a household on a reduced income, whether because we’re on furlough, or we’re self-employed like I am and have seen a drop in their finances from lack of demand.”

Caroline said that homeschooling has a put a strain on the relationship with her young daughter.

“She wants me to be mummy but mummy has to step up to be teacher too,” Caroline explained.

Because registered childminders in Northern Ireland are now considered key workers under the current lockdown, Caroline was given the option to send her child to school when schools were otherwise shut.

“I wanted her to stay home but I could see the effect it was having on her – that there would be a risk of serious separation anxiety when she did have to go back to school since we’ve been together all the time, so I’d opted to send her in two days a week. The whole situation has been hard on both of us.”

Juggling homeschooling and household finances has been especially tough, Caroline noted. After a significant drop in her income from falling demand for childminders amid the pandemic, Caroline began claiming Universal Credit in August. 

She and millions like her have only ever known Universal Credit to include the extra £20 per week introduced as an emergency measure last March. If the extra £20 a week is axed later this year as planned, Caroline said she would struggle to cope.

“I really don’t know how I would manage if the £20 a week were taken away – that’s nearly £90 every payment term. We’ve cut all our outgoings as much as we can and I’ve got to the point where we simply can’t cut anymore. We just barely get by every month.

“I need my car for work. I can’t stop paying my rent or stop eating. And we’ve already cut our TV licence so the only thing left I can cut is broadband which we need for homeschooling and schooling in general. If I can’t find anything to cut back on then the debts that I already have are never going to be paid and it’s just going to grow and grow and grow.”

‘No time to look after ourselves’

Caroline is not alone among women who have seen their incomes drop amid the pandemic – now dubbed a ‘she-cession’, women’s incomes have declined by nearly 13 per cent on average over the last year, double the rate of men’s income reduction.

In London alone, nearly half of all women – 48 per cent – reported a decline in their disposable income in January, while men’s incomes in the capital in January held steady, according to a report from the Centre for London.

Meanwhile, an analysis from Unite found that mothers have been 47 per cent more likely to lose their jobs than fathers, are more likely to be furloughed and more than 50 per cent more likely to have their hours cut.

Even for those women whose hours or incomes have not dropped throughout the pandemic, the burden of caring responsibilities has still fallen disproportionately on women, which has taken a massive mental health toll.

A major new study from the University of Sheffield looked at healthcare workers’ mental health during the pandemic and found that surprisingly, age did not have an effect on healthcare staff’s stress levels, despite older people being at much greater risk of becoming severely ill or dying from exposure to coronavirus.

Instead, the major ‘risk factor’ for stress among healthcare workers was their gender – women in healthcare were much more likely to be mentally distressed amid the pandemic than their male counterparts.

For Doctors in Unite (DiU) chair and GP Dr Jackie Applebee, this finding was not surprising.

“So many healthcare workers, especially in hospitals, have had very traumatic experiences fighting the Covid pandemic, witnessing so many people sick and dying,” she explained. “Many of them, both men and women, have suffered PTSD from that experience – but for women healthcare workers to have gone through that and then also be expected to juggle things at home – there’s absolutely no time to look after themselves.”

“And if they do take time to look after themselves, they’re likely feeling guilty – they’re thinking, ‘I should be at work or I should be with my kids, or helping my elderly parents who are shielding.”

As a GP, Dr Applebee has seen first-hand the increasing mental health toll on both men and women in the last year.

“I’ve been getting so many more patients phoning up saying they’re stressed – both men and women but especially women,” she said. “For a lot of women, they haven’t felt this way before so they don’t recognise it. They’re saying ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me’. Or they think ‘I should be able to cope with this’.

“The key is just validating their feelings, telling them no, what you’re dealing with is a huge amount to cope with and that there’s nothing wrong with you – it’s the pandemic and the unprecedented thing that’s happening to us all.”

‘There needs to be a big push for childcare’

As part of their report on the gendered impact of the pandemic, the Women and Equalities Select Committee made a number of recommendations, including more government support for the childcare sector, more targeted support for the self-employed, maintaining the Universal Credit uplift, and increasing statutory sick pay, among others.

The Committee has also called for investment in a post-pandemic recovery that takes into consideration jobs and training for women. They expressed concern that far too much investment is geared towards sectors that are male-dominated.

Caroline wholeheartedly agrees, especially on the pressing need for greater childcare sector support.

“There needs to be a big push for childcare,” she said. “We’re seeing all this money being pushed into getting the economy going again. But women can’t go to work if they don’t have childcare – it’s that simple.”

In Northern Ireland where Caroline lives, support for childcare is especially lacking – in England, the government funds a certain number of childcare hours for young children but in Northern Ireland, families get no support. An appeal for a childcare strategy in Northern Ireland was promised, but more than five years later, families are still waiting.

“If we as childcare providers don’t get the support we need and we have to close our doors then that’s us unemployed and their parents, women especially, who can’t go to work. Even in two-parent households, it’s often the woman who is paid less, who’s had to take the cut in hours so the obvious person to stay home is the lower-earner, the woman.”

Caroline also highlighted the need to empower and support women to train and learn so they can improve their career prospects.  

“I don’t want to be on the benefits system; I want to better myself, but because I’m on Universal Credit, I’m constantly being pressured into finding a 40-hour job, and as a single parent I can’t train. I just don’t have the time. Being given the time and resources to take on training opportunities is absolutely vital for single mums especially.”

Government Covid failures

Dr Applebee feels that the government’s failures in getting to grips with the Covid pandemic have had a direct impact on both women health care workers and women in general.

“If the government had listened to us healthcare workers from the beginning – had listened to us about PPE; about sorting Test and Trace through local public health teams instead of a national privatised system run by Serco; about supporting people to self-isolate through increasing statutory sick pay, then we wouldn’t be in this position,” she told UniteLive.

“If they’d have done what we had called for then they could have really suppressed the virus a lot more than they have. That in itself would have taken the pressure off all healthcare workers including women because there wouldn’t have been so much Covid to deal with in the first place.”

She added that low-paid women in particular are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s gendered impact.

“Take hospital cleaners – they’re low-paid, usually employed by agencies on zero-hours contracts and are all almost exclusively women,” Dr Applebee explained. “Many tend to live in multigenerational households, either caring for elderly parents and/or relying on parents for childcare. They can’t afford to self-isolate if they need to – they’ll have to choose between making ends meet and putting their colleagues at risk. This is an unfair choice and why an increase in statutory sick pay is so important for all women but especially low-paid women.”

‘We need to hold this government to account’

Above all, Caroline notes, women need to be listened to.  

“The people in power are not listening to women, but then again when the government is mostly made up of men, maybe it’s not surprising,” she said. “Women are the backbone of the household, of children’s care and education and at the minute, all that stress and pressure is falling on women. It’s not appreciated and not valued.

“Women have to constantly fight and shout to be heard – and then when we’re fighting to be heard, we’re told that we’re being aggressive. But we have no other choice – we have to shout or else no one will listen to us.”

Unite national officer for women and equalities Siobhan Endean slammed the government as ‘actively anti-women’.

“Covid-19 has exposed not just the deep wealth divide in this country, but just how inadequate are the rights and protections workers have in this country, with women and BAEM workers hit hardest and most vulnerable to poverty,” she wrote in a comment piece today (March 8).

“Policies that supercharge inequalities hit women and families hardest, which we see in the impact of the five-week wait for UC, which plunges claimants into instant poverty and forces them to turn to foodbanks.”

Endean highlighted the role Unite has played in fighting for women amid the pandemic, and said the trade union movement as a whole has an important part to play to counter the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women.  

“On this International Women’s Day, women trade unionists should be leading union negotiations for a fair pay rise and organising industrial action to resist the government’s detested key worker pay freeze,” she wrote.

“We must organise to hold this government to account and demand a strategy that reflects the priorities of working-class women.”

You can read Siobhan’s full comment piece here.

You can also read Unite’s equality briefing for reps about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women, and how reps can fight for their women members in the workplace to ensure they get a fair deal.

By Hajera Blagg

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