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Women in crisis and the coronavirus

In our research for the Help through Crisis programme, we looked at gendered causes of crisis, emerging themes, and how they relate to the coronavirus pandemic.

A decade of austerity has left our welfare system ill-equipped to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. Many more people will find themselves in crisis as the emergency unfolds. But women will be hit hardest. Systemic gender inequalities – that privilege men at the expense of women – have deepened under austerity. In fact, women have borne 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010, making them more vulnerable to coronavirus and its aftermath.

Our political and physical environment is shaped by men, for men. Women represent less than a third of the Houses of Parliament, and just 14% of the UK built environment sector. This power imbalance results in policies, places and practices that fail to address women’s needs. Women are also underrepresented in medical research and clinical trials for drugs and vaccines.

How can we develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine if women are excluded from research?

And gender inequalities intersect with other structural inequalities, such as racism, homophobia and ageism. We know, for example, that BMEs represent a significant proportion of key workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Yet the emergency measures disparately impact BME communities who are more likely to experience stop and search. Coronavirus will entrench existing inequalities –exacerbated by austerity – unless we adopt an intersectional approach.

How has austerity exacerbated crisis hardship for women?

Women face a ‘triple jeopardy’ when it comes to austerity. Firstly, they are the primary users of many state services. Secondly, the public sector is disproportionately staffed by women, so their jobs are more vulnerable to public sector cuts. Finally, the feminisation of caring responsibilities means women tend to fill the gaps when state services are withdrawn. Austerity has also worsened health and life expectancy, especially for women in areas of high deprivation. All this heightens women’s vulnerability to coronavirus and limits their access to resources that might help them cope.

Poverty and economic hardship

Gender inequalities put women on the back foot as we enter a coronavirus-triggered economic crisis. Societal gender roles have ascribed women the responsibility of unpaid care – crucial roles during this crisis. On average, women do 60% more unpaid care work than men, and this is more prominent among immigrant and BME women. Consequently, women experience more ‘time poverty,’ and have less time for paid work and other activities.

Speaking of paid work, the gender pay gap is well known, but isn’t the only type of discrimination women face in the labour market. Compared to women, men are almost 50% more likely to be in full-time paid work. And 98% of workers whose jobs expose them to coronavirus and pay poverty wages are women. Women with disabilities, and BME and LGTBQI women face additional forms of work-related discrimination, with BME workers twice as likely to have insufficient hours to make ends meet. This reduces their capability to deal with crises.

Gender-based violence

Globally, experts are concerned that, with coronavirus stay-at-home orders, incidents of gender-based violence (GBV) have increased. GBV is significantly more frequent among women and girls, and greatest in BME communities. In the UK, domestic abuse calls are up 25% since lockdown.  Sandra Horley CBE, of Refuge has said:

“While in lockdown or self-isolation, women and children are likely to be spending concentrated periods of time with perpetrators, potentially escalating the threat of domestic abuse and further restricting their freedom.”

However, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making, including in coronavirus responses across governments worldwide. And under austerity, the state and crisis support services that women rely on, especially for domestic violence aid, have dwindled. This raises questions about the extent to which these services can respond to women’s increased needs.

How should we respond?

First, there needs to be an immediate response to the crisis, ensuring nobody falls through the gaps in our weakened social security system. This requires a Minimum Income Guarantee. Universally raising the level of the safety net will ensure that those losing all or part of their income will fall less far. It will also raise income for current claimants, who may face further hardship because of the crisis.

In the longer term, we need a new social settlement so everyone can have a decent quality of life. This has two key elements: first, a new deal for workers recognising invisible, female-dominated, care work. Second, a new wellbeing state that provides a strong safety net so we can weather crises.

We also need a democratic economy, with devolved state power and people-led policy-making. This would allow marginalised and diverse voices, including those of women and BME communities, to shape policies that reflect the realities of our diverse society.

The New Economics Foundation is working to develop a core set of policies to achieve a new social settlement and a democratic economy. 

Manuela is currently working on a project for the Help through Crisis (HtC) programme funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.