Why Is COVID-19 Having A Devastating Effect On Women? Part 1
Updated: Jun 17
Author - Jodi Montlake
We’ve all been affected by COVID-19 differently. What is apparent is that some people in society have been impacted more severely. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has revealed that the lives of women have been disproportionately hit the hardest. That isn’t to mention that men haven’t felt the pain caused by the pandemic
too. But in this blog I'm going to focus on how it has affected women. When a woman is suffering this will with no doubt affect ALL the supporting figures (male or female) in her life. A female problem is ALL our problem.
In this first of a 2-part blog I want to report how the pandemic highlights the socioeconomic inequalities, economic insecurities and gender disparities in the UK. I’ll be reflecting on my own personal experience of how I have been affected by the virus in terms of social care, home schooling and juggling work-family and financial pressure. In addition, I will discuss how gender is tied up with factors - such as poverty, violence, ethnicity and immigration status - and that some communities have been more exposed to the pandemic than others.
10 Key Areas Where Women Have Been Affected By COVID-19
Employment (including furlough and unemployment)
Children & Adolescents
Mental Health & Physical Health
I will construct this first part of the blog referencing key points 1-5 of the impacts of COVID-19 on women.In the second part of the blog I go through key points 6-10.
Research has shown that women and those on low incomes will be hit hard by the government’s public service cuts (described in HM Treasury and Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP Budget Speech March 2021).
Faced with the impact of the pandemic, data suggests that more women’s jobs are at risk than men’s. Despite only making up 48% of the workforce, 52% of the jobs furloughed between July and October 2020 were women’s. When a woman loses her job this can cause stress on all the family.
It’s sadly still the case that women and girls take on the overwhelming majority of unpaid care work. This includes looking after children during school closures, to caring for elderly relatives.
Deep rooted inequalities have been evident throughout the pandemic across the UK.
Gender inequalities have been highlighted throughout all walks of life. This is why I think a dedicated support service for women and girls is so vital right now.
Above are some statistics for women pre-COVID-19 and we know that the situation is worse now (whilst I’m writing this in April 2021).
This is why I think Polly’s helpline and webchat are going to be so vital in supporting women and girls aged 13+.
Find Out More How Charity Polly Will Help Here
The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, recently said in a speech to the UN Commission,
“those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic are those who are least able to cope”.
What Has Changed For Women During The Pandemic?
Women and girls have been more susceptible to gender-based violence (source)
Women and girls have needed to drop out of work and/or education to take on unpaid caring responsibilities (source)
Women and girls’ physical and mental wellbeing has suffered due to a variety of issues either exacerbated or brought on by the pandemic which will be discussed below (source)
In this blog I will be discussing a number of key areas that women have been affected by Covid-19, namely, Social Care and Key Workers, Childcare and Employment.
1. Women And Social Care During Covid-19
Prior to COVID-19, AGE UK estimated there were 1.5 million people in the UK with unmet care needs. The recent budget shows that the UK government’s spending in this area will fall and we already know that the burden of social care disproportionately falls with women.
The majority of unpaid social care work is done by women. Social care is highly reliant on women's work, with women accounting for 71% of the workforce (ONS, 2020).
Statistics show 58% of unpaid carers are women compared to 42% of men and that caring responsibilities are more likely to last longer and be more intensive for women with consequent impacts on employment and financial security in older age. It’s therefore not surprising that many women struggle to cope with juggling the many demands on their time.
The UK Charity, Fawcett, has researched how coronavirus is impacting Black and Asian women and women from ethnic minority backgrounds.They reported that women from these communities are particularly vulnerable to the economic and social impacts of the crisis. 45% of BAME women  said they were struggling to cope with the different demands of domestic and care work.
My Personal Experience with Social Care During Covid-19
Reflecting on my own experience of social care and family life during the past year reminds me of the immense anxiety and stress I felt. I, like many other women, have been juggling children (mine are aged 12 and 9) who were being homeschooled (and unable to see their grandparents, which was often a reprieve for me in childcare). Plus, I continued to work. I’m a freelancer, so no furlough, compassionate / sick or holiday pay for me. I needed the money, have financial commitments and I love working and want to keep my mind active. Alongside this I was supporting my father (aged 76) who suffered from pneumonia in Spring 2020 and was hospitalised at Northwick Park Hospital, the London hospital with the most COVID-19 deaths.
This was a frightening time for my family. My mother was caught between wanting to help and visit my dad but being scared (and my sister and I being scared for her) that she would catch the virus and fall ill too. I feared that visiting my dad in the Enhanced Care Unit where he needed some love and motivation to stay strong would mean I was bringing the virus back home and risking my family too. What was heartbreaking was I couldn’t comfort my mum with a hug or even step inside her home for a cup of tea. The situation was truly awful and must have been similar for many other people reading this blog too.
Thankfully, my dad did pull through (physically). However when he came home (in May 2020) to a new world full of pandemic anxiety, his mental health started to deteriorate. By May he was suffering symptoms of psychosis which was extremely hard on my mum. His psychosis was making him delusional and putting him at more physical risk of the virus. He constantly went out into society, jumped on buses for no important reason, went to supermarkets and walked near people in indoor spaces. His behaviour got so bad the doctors sectioned him under the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA). My mum, sister and I supported this. We were in despair and nothing we tried was helping. In fact, my dad was getting worse. He spent a further three months at Northwick Park Hospital getting fantastic help and treatment. At this time, the hospitals were being really strict by not letting any visitors in. I spent many days delivering food parcels, jigsaws or newspapers to keep him entertained. We felt really sad we couldn’t do a video call as his mobile had to be taken away from him - it wasn’t helping his mental recovery.
My mum and dad have been married for over forty five years. My mum is a strong lady and was coping well (considering) but still needed lots of support too, not just emotionally but with her everyday finances and household duties that my dad normally took care of. It was all a bit of a mess. It took a team of us (my husband, sister, aunt, cousin and friends) to manage the situation and I wonder how we would have coped if we didn’t have a good network of support.
Even when you do have lots of help you can still feel alone in a situation. Everyone responds differently. My sister is more emotional in a crisis than I. I tend to handle a crisis calmly and process it all after the event and that’s when it tends to hit me. I handle stress by spending time with my dogs, husband, kids, work, volunteering and tennis but sometimes it isn’t enough. That’s one of the reasons I volunteer for Polly. I know that sometimes women are in a situation and they don’t know what to do, even if they do have outlets and support. If people’s normal support systems or places they turn to for comfort aren’t working there needs to be a safe space where they can talk and get help.
Polly is getting ready to launch their first pilot in Greater Manchester. The helpline and webchat will support 500 women and girls and self-identifying females aged 13+. Read more here
There is a nice ending to my family's story. My dad has recovered and is happy back at home through the excellent help of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers at the NHS. Although without my mother and my constant phoning, emailing and then calling, again and again, to get someone to help in a crisis I’m not sure where he would be now. It's a shame things have to get so dire before the NHS can step in. The waiting lists for people in crisis or needing help are so long that more needs to be done. And of course, until that happens the majority of the burden will fall on the women in the family to provide social care.
A Few Facts And Figures About Social Care From The Health Foundation
(accurate as of July 2020)
There has been a greater proportional increase in deaths among domiciliary care users than in care homes during COVID-19.
Social care workers are among the occupational groups at highest risk of COVID-19 mortality, with care home workers and home carers accounting for the highest proportion of COVID-19 deaths within this group.
During March and April 2020, there was a substantial reduction in hospital admissions among care home residents. By reducing admissions, care home and NHS teams may have reduced the risk of transmission, but there may have also been an increase in unmet health needs.
2. Women And Childcare During COVID-19
Childcare is instrumental to enable parents to work and have some much needed “me time”. The closure of schools and other childcare providers has also affected women more than men and has caused mass unemployment and a crippling effect on household income.
72% of people worked fewer hours and cut their earnings due to lack of childcare.
46% of the people that were made redundant said that lack of childcare was a factor in their selection for redundancy.
2 in 5 working mums (with children under 10) couldn't get– or were unsure whether they would get – enough childcare to cover the hours they need for work in lockdown last year.
Because of a lack of available childcare, 1 in 6 (mostly in low-paid jobs) working mums reported that they have had no choice but to reduce their working hours (or leave the workplace altogether) to balance new care demands arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Judging from my own experience speaking to parents at the school gates or on whatsapp groups from networks, childcare has been one of the biggest challenges over the past year. The grandparents (for many) had played a huge part in allowing parents to work so they didn’t need to fork out on expensive childcare solutions like nannies, after school carers & clubs or au pairs. My inlaws live in Manchester (and I live in London). Restrictions on travel during COVID-19 has also meant the usual school holidays or weekends when grandparents visited and helped with child care have also been taken away too. Although the later lockdowns allowed nurseries to open for the under 5s, many people were unable to afford the fees due to less hours at work. Some decided they didn’t want to risk their child going to nursery as they feared risk of infection.
A lack of childcare has also meant that many parents have had little “headspace” moments for themselves. Although we all love our little darlings, I’m sure we were never meant to be with them 24-7! For some I have spoken with this has negatively affected their mental health. Those who were already suffering from mental health issues found their normal coping mechanisms, like taking a quiet walk in the woods, were not practical anymore as their children were too young to be left alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if I hear lots of similar stories from friends (when we actually get a chance to speak) now our kids are back at school.
3. Women & Furlough Or Redundancy During COVID-19
Women at work have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and furlough. This is likely due to women working in sectors like retail, leisure and food services.
Estimates for the end of January 2021 reached 2.32 million for women that were furloughed against 2.18 million men.
A third of working mothers were reported to have lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare. This figure rose to 44% of women for mothers from the black, asian and ethnic minority (BAME) communities.
Women who took maternity leave or a work gap to fulfill childcare over the past few years were unable to apply for furlough.
Coping with redundancy or furlough can have a serious impact on mental and financial health (for both men and women). Losing a structure and purpose to daily life can cause feelings of poor self-esteem and self-worth. It can also feel very lonely and isolating. Not being able to look after yourself and your loved ones financially is a big stress. It can feel overwhelming to know how to deal with the current situation.
Most people’s situations are unique to them and many need help to keep mentally afloat. Whilst some might like the opportunity to have a break, see more of their household and perhaps think about taking up a new hobby or career path, others have found the situation has triggered new or existing mental health problems.
4. Women As Key Workers During COVID-19
Women workers make up a large portion of key workers. Sectors of work include health and social care, food supply, public services and utility workers.
According to the ONS health and social care is the most common key worker group in the UK. This group is made up of 58% women. The second-largest key worker group is education and childcare (again mostly made up by female workers, nearly three-fifths).
31% of key workers have children between 5-15 years old and 16% have children aged 4 years or under.
People from ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly Indian, black African and black Caribbean people are over-represented in key worker jobs, especially front-line health and social care roles, compared to white people.
Of all households with dependent children, 6% were key workers and lone parents
Because many of these workers are unable to work from home they have been at more physical risk of contracting the virus. This has put considerable anxiety on key workers, especially when having to weigh up the pros and cons of being a potential risk of catching or passing COVID-19 onto a loved one; taking public transport, or whether to decide to homeschool or send their child into education so they can work. Those that were able to work from home and have their children beside them homeschooling were needing to multitask and be mum-cook-teacher-employee-colleague all at the same time.
Weariness felt by staff, who are just as exposed to COVID-19 as everyone else were often overwhelmed by what they saw. Some women have experienced the virus, illness, and bereavements of their own loved ones to deal with too. They have also faced extra work burdens due to the redeployment and sickness of colleagues and issues like home schooling.
The struggle to balance work and home life with the wellbeing of you and your family has been an extremely tough task for most people.
5. Women Supporting Children During COVID-19
Being a parent is often stressful but the pandemic might understandably mean your child’s mental health and wellbeing have suffered as well as your own.
65% of the parents and carers that responded to a survey by UK charity Young Minds said that the coronavirus pandemic has made their mental health worse. This in part might be due to supporting their child with mental health issues like anxiety, low mood, anger, suicide or depression.
Unfortunately, I have personally heard too many stories from friends (and my own kids) of how children’s behaviour has been badly affected at this time. One person told me how she was concerned about her teenage daughter's mental health. Her daughter was becoming withdrawn, not wanting to get dressed, go outside, speak to people. She found it difficult to get to sleep at night, was anxious and developed many OCD type tendencies. The GP referred them to CAHMS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) where they quickly got a phone consultation with an expert that took down a few details and were then told there would likely be at least a 13 week wait to get an appointment. 15 weeks later they are still waiting and the situation hasn’t changed. The teenage girl needs help NOW and that is another reason why we need Polly.
Many families have felt scared to send their children back to school (this could be if the adults in their family are yet to receive their vaccinations). I’m writing this blog at a time when most children have returned to school. Teachers have witnessed an unsettling start, with kids being less focused, unhappy and difficult to manage in the classroom. We should see more studies about this in the coming months. Some parents who are concerned for their child's wellbeing have to decide if they are ready to return to school and are threatened with truancy fines. Some parents may feel abandoned or isolated when deciding to de-register their children from school. Read more here
Look out for the second part of this blog next week!
If you have a child that needs access now to emotional support they can speak to someone at any of the following organisations 24/7 helpline, text, or online chat service.
 This report has grouped individual women together by using the term BAME (black asians minority ethnic). By using this term it implies that all of these women are facing exactly the same pressures which I don't think is correct. Unfortunately, I can’t change how the reports choose to gather their information and will use this term when referencing report information as it is relevant when discussing how COVID-19 is affecting women in society.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Polly for Women Cio, and/or any/all contributors to this website.