COVID-19 has changed our daily lives, but it has also aggravated inequalities that predated the pandemic.
There is emerging evidence of widening gender inequalities in the labour market, health outcomes, representation, and domestic abuse.
But women’s experiences are not homogenous, and inequalities are amplified where different factors such as economic deprivation, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, gender identity and other factors intersect.
For example, early evidence showed that 39% of all female employees under 25 were working in shut-down sectors in Wales, and 44% of workers of Bangladeshi ethnicity were employed in shut-down sectors.
UN Women emphasises that:
‘[…] the perspectives of women and girls in all of their diversity must be integrated in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages of pandemic response and recovery.’
The Welsh Government’s aim of becoming a ‘feminist government’ which recognises intersectional inequalities is likely to be tested during the pandemic recovery.
What is intersectionality?
‘Intersectionality’ is a term coined over 30 years ago by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. She described it as a “metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves”.
Intersectionality describes the way these factors overlap, and explains why gender alone cannot explain the different impacts of COVID-19. But a lack of disaggregated data frustrates meaningful analysis.
An intersectional approach to recovery must contend with the challenges faced by people with multiple protected characteristics
An intersectional lens helps explain why COVID-19 has had such diverse effects on people. This multi-layered experience of inequality will also affect people’s ability to recover from the aftermath of the pandemic, and their capacity to be resilient in the face of future crises.
The reduction of inequalities is a key priority for the Welsh Government’s plan for recovery from the pandemic.
In 2018 the Welsh Government made a commitment to become a ‘feminist government’, with a key principle of intersectionality. The Gender Action Plan published in March 2020 similarly emphasises that “one single form of discrimination cannot and should not be understood in isolation from another”.
Intersectionality is also recognised in the Welsh Government’s Strategic Equality Plan and Objectives 2020-24.
Data is key to understanding intersectional inequality
One of the barriers to embedding an intersectional approach to equality is a lack of disaggregated, intersectional data available at Wales level.
As noted by the Senedd’s Equality Committee in August 2020, “[d]uring the pandemic it has become clear that the data available is not of sufficient quality in terms of public sector employment, or health outcomes”. This finding was echoed by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee.
But what do we know so far about the intersectional inequalities highlighted by the pandemic, and what data are missing?
A concerning picture for women’s representation
Chwarae Teg’s State of the Nation report 2021 found a sharp decline in women’s accession to positions of influence. Female public appointments are down from 64% in 2018-19 to 43% in 2019-20, and female chair appointments have gone from 56% to less than 5%.
Recent modelling suggests that only 34% of women candidates for May’s Senedd election in May are in ‘winnable’ seats, also pointing to widening inequality in representation.
These data are not further disaggregated by ethnicity, disability, age, or other factors. In its research on racialised representation in Welsh public life, Race Alliance Wales called for ethnicity data to be collected on public appointment applications, and for Section 106 of the Equality Act to be enacted to allow the collection of ethnicity data related to candidates for election at local and national levels. This was also recommended by the Senedd’s Equality Committee in 2019.
The gendered impact on health
While men and women are equally susceptible to catching the virus, men have a higher risk of severe illness and death.
But women are much more likely to be key workers than men in Wales, and so more likely to be exposed to the virus. Women represent 78% of employees in the UK health, social care, and social work sectors. The social care sector is particularly reliant on migrant women, who make up 16% of the UK social care workforce. Last year the Senedd’s Equality Committee raised particular concerns about the quality of equality data collected by health and social care services in Wales.
Women who became mothers during the pandemic experienced specific problems. The UK Parent Infant Foundation’s Babies in Lockdown report found that 28% of breastfeeding parents felt they lacked support, with Black respondents most affected. Only 11% of parents of children aged under two had seen a health visitor in person.
There is evidence that women were more likely to see their mental health degrade during the pandemic. Young women aged 16-24 reporting a serious mental health issue increased during the pandemic from 18% to 35%.
Research also shows that 56% of disabled women reported finding social isolation difficult to cope with, compared to 41% of non-disabled women. Anxiety was highest among disabled women, with over half reporting high anxiety.
The pandemic restricted access to healthcare for populations with heightened medical needs such as the trans community. Barnardo’s and Stonewall issued warnings that LGBTQ+ people would also risk being shut out from their community and more vulnerable to violence, mental health problems, and discrimination.
Shockwaves in the labour market have not been felt equally
Research showed that the sectors most affected by the pandemic in Wales (such as hospitality, leisure, and non-essential retail) employ a higher than average proportion of young people, women, workers of Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Pakistani heritage, and low income workers.
The latest labour market figures show that the employment rate (which includes people who are furloughed) between October and December 2020 for men was 74%, compared to 70% for women.
The data also shows that 92,500 women and 85,400 men in Wales were furloughed as of January 2021. Analysis of HMRC data at a UK level found that young women under 22 were more likely to be furloughed than men of the same age.
The lack of intersectional data on key labour market benchmarks at a Wales level may make it harder to effectively target recovery programmes at those who most need them.
COVID-19 has made the demands of unpaid labour more visible
Working from home has brought advantages and drawbacks depending on people’s responsibilities and living situations. But with schools closed, more people at home, and less childcare available, the need for household chores and care has increased.
UN Women research from 38 countries found that while both men and women have increased their unpaid care loads, women were taking on the lion’s share, leading to many leaving the workforce completely.
Research in Wales shows that women are more likely to have to take unpaid time off to look after their children (15% against 8% of fathers). The research also found that people with incomes less than £20,000 are almost five times more likely to lose their job or working hours due to childcare responsibilities than women on higher incomes.
Parenting also brought added challenges for disabled women. Over a third (38%) of disabled mothers said they were struggling to feed their children, compared to 17% of non-disabled mothers. In addition to this, 59% of disabled women experienced difficulties performing day-to-day tasks such as grocery shopping, and 60% reported issues with managing a career alongside childcare.
Further studies in Wales highlight the importance of flexible working in the long term to ensure mothers do not permanently leave the workforce. The Senedd’s Equality Committee made a range of recommendations about parenting and employment in 2018, including the improvement of flexible work.
Lockdowns increased risks
Data points to a likely increase in domestic abuse in the past year . While this may be linked to the lockdown as well as to better levels of recording of abuse by the police, the pandemic has made it indisputably harder for victims to escape their abusers.
The Women’s Budget Group highlight the ‘institutionalised dependency’ of migrant women, many of whom rely on a partner for their immigration status, and are unable to access benefits or other support due to the UK Government’s no recourse to public funds (NPRF) policy. Early on in the pandemic, the Welsh Government made the decision to provide housing support to NPRF-affected residents, particularly those experiencing abuse, but there are questions about its continuation.
The pandemic increased the risks of domestic abuse for disabled women, who were already more likely to experience it while also being at a greater risk of poverty and unemployment. Research found 42% of disabled women faced tensions in their relationships, even as they might find it harder to escape their home due to shielding or experiencing other physical limitations.
What does this mean for gender equality in Wales?
Data on the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 is still emerging, and no summary of the effects of the pandemic can be exhaustive.
In the coming years, the Welsh Government’s commitments to an intersectional approach to equality will be tested, and the importance of good quality evidence will be central to this.
The Senedd’s Equality Committee urged that the “the recovery must be targeted at those who have lost the most, and this opportunity must be used to rectify existing inequalities.”
On this International Women’s Day, as we begin to understand the impact of the crisis on gender equality, an intersectional understanding of risk, vulnerability, privilege, and deprivation reminds us that being a woman is only one of many facets to the problem of inequality.