The government's botched response to Covid-19 will set women back decades—and shows the need for more female leaders

They're more likely to lose their jobs. They've shouldered the brunt of lockdown-era childcare and housework. So why have women and their interests been conspicuously absent from the government's response?

July 21, 2020
A nurse places candles bearing the names of health and social care workers that have died from coronavirus during a vigil outside Downing Street, London. Picture date: Thursday June 11, 2020.
A nurse places candles bearing the names of health and social care workers that have died from coronavirus during a vigil outside Downing Street, London. Picture date: Thursday June 11, 2020.
Women make up 70 percent of the world's health workforce, but only 24 per cent are present in the decision making processes around Covid-19 globally. Photo: PA Images

From growing cases of domestic abuse to rising job insecurity, women have borne the brunt of Covid-19's many ravages. But there has been a dearth of women at the government's daily Covid-19 briefings. The lack of expertise informing governmental decisions has exacerbated the unequal burden that women already face daily.

Lack of meaningful representation for women and other marginalised groups on the government's coronavirus task force is a direct failure of leadership at the very top. And the impacts have been huge: at home, at work, and across society at large.

Juggling multiple hats

Women have been finding themselves increasingly overburdened at home, juggling multiple hats as mum, teacher, cook, cleaner and employee. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that compared to fathers, mothers were more likely to have quit or lost their jobs, or been furloughed. They were also more likely to be spending more time on household responsibilities.

Some women have had to take temporary furlough to look after children, thus risking their jobs. 78 per cent of mothers have found it challenging to balance childcare with paid work. It is no wonder that many have chosen the risk of taking voluntary furlough over burning out completely. The pandemic risks making women regress back to antiquated norms of the 1950’s, with a derailment of their careers a very real reality. It is a crying shame when you consider the fact that before the pandemic, female employment was at a record high.

And that’s not all the pressure some face at home. Over the past few months there has been a 950 per cent increase in visits to Refuge’s website (a charity supporting women and children against domestic violence) and a huge surge in calls to domestic violence helplines.

And which women are being affected by the crunch the most? Research has shown that young women under the age of 25 are one-third more likely than men to work in a sector that has closed its doors during lockdown, such as hospitality, leisure and retail. Meanwhile, Black, Asian, and other ethnic minority (BAME) women have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 42.5 per cent of BAME women have recently lost support from the government, compared to 12.7 per cent of white women. BAME women are also more likely to have lost support from other networks (48.3 per cent) in comparison to their white counterparts (34 per cent.) Of those who are working at home, 41 per cent BAME women report working more than they did before the pandemic, with 45.4 per cent stating they struggle to cope with the multiple demands on their time, compared to 29.2 per cent of white women.

BAME people are more likely to be key workers who work in closer proximity to the virus, resulting in a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths. Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, a 28-year old pregnant nurse, contracted Covid-19 and pneumonia and died after her baby was delivered. A survey by Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity led by women who have experienced pregnancy and maternity discrimination, found that 6.4 per cent of pregnant BAME women (compared to 5 per cent of all women surveyed) were still going to work in unsafe environments.

The government was warned

For each of these issues, the government was warned about what was to come—and their response was disappointing.

Before lockdown, women’s organisations in the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector urged the government to safeguard women and children at risk of domestic violence and abuse. They called for increased funding to the sector to support an increase in the number of women needing support. They knew cases of domestic abuse would skyrocket as lockdown commenced. They called for better guidance on how women and girls could safeguard themselves.

Crucially they called for greater representation in the decision-making table for the Covid-19 ministerial task group. It was not to be. Instead, the government ring-fenced £2 million for domestic abuse services. To access this money, domestic abuse services—already underfunded, overstretched and understaffed—would have to bid for the funds. Rather than make the funds easily available, the government tied them up in red tape.

With no concrete plans from the government to re-establish the childcare sector, it is women-led organisations, such as the Women’s Budget Group, that have been calling on the government to implement pre-emptive policies to protect women against being disproportionately affected by redundancies. They have also requested that the government provide extra protections for women who cannot work due to caring responsibilities.

The cost of underrepresentation

So what went wrong? Why did the government, despite being repeatedly warned about what was to come, fail to act? According to Care International, women make up 70 percent of the world's health workforce, but only 24 per cent are present in the decision making processes around Covid-19 globally. Boris Johnson himself has come under fire for lack of representation around the table. When quizzed on this issue, he was unable to say how many women would be “enough to secure proper gender representation” at ministerial level to advise on decisions on Covid-19.

Hannah Swirsky from the Centenary Action Group, a cross-party coalition working to improve women’s representation in politics, told me, “Covid-19 disproportionately affects women with intersectional identities, including Black, Asian and ethnic minority women and disabled women. Yet, white men make up the majority of the cabinet and only 3 per cent of government appearances at daily press briefings were made by women. In order to embed equality into the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, women in all our diversity must be equally represented in decision-making roles.”

By not listening to essential voices—experts in domestic violence, experts in the gendered economic impact of coronavirus, experts in racial inequality, experts who could advise on the impact of Covid-19 on women with disabilities—the government has failed women around the country. It has shown a lack of transparency throughout the crisis and has avoided scrutiny over its questionable decisions.

The government's botched response to Covid-19 shows that we need more women at the table. They can provide the lived experience to inform policies that protect us. Women’s organisations also have the experience, expertise and gumption needed to tackle these issues head on. It is time for the government to implement the recommendations coming from the sector and include them in all decision-making processes.