Pandemic widens gender inequality across UK and Europe, with working mothers “paying a particularly high price”

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1.5 million young women have lost income since the pandemic began in the UK, with working mothers paying a “particularly high price”, charity Young Women’s Trust told Eat News. More than a third of women who are single parents said they had skipped meals to just make ends meet, research by the UK-based women’s charity found.

Women have been disproportionately impacted by the varying weights of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge said earlier this month. Over seven out of 10 global health workers are women, with women making up 84% of nurses and 53% of physicians in Europe. “The face of that frontline health worker we so often talk about is mostly the face of a woman,” Dr Kluge explained.

Despite making up less of the healthcare workforce, men are typically paid 25% more than women in the sector, Dr Kluge said. Women are more frequently grouped into lower status jobs with lower wages, he added, meaning the pandemic has only widened the infamous gender pay gap. However, regulations imposed at the beginning of the pandemic in the UK have meant that the full extent of the pay gap has been harder to reveal.

“The government suspended the requirement for companies with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap last year at the start of the pandemic, and it recently announced that this suspension would be extended for a further six months,” director of communications and campaigns at Young Women’s Trust, Joe Levenson, said. 

“However, as we have seen how women have been financially impacted and taking on more caring responsibilities during the pandemic, we would expect these factors to have a negative impact on the gender pay gap,” Levenson continued. The charity, which strives for economic justice for women, has also called for an equality impact assessment for every government policy. “Only this level of scrutiny will protect young women as we move into recovery from the pandemic,” he explained. 

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Outside of the UK, global charity Equality Now has found the pandemic has prevented the pay gap from shrinking in Europe and Eurasia. “Recent indications are that the slow advance towards equality in pay between women and men is not only faltering, the gap is actually widening,” director of Equality Now’s Europe and Eurasia office, Jacqui Hunt told Eat News. “This is deeply concerning and clearly demonstrates that both governments and businesses need to do much more to improve efforts and speed up progress towards parity in pay between women and men.”

Photo: Young Women’s Trust/Facebook

Unpaid work

Before Covid-19, women were three times more likely to partake in unpaid care and domestic work than men, research by the WHO found. Lockdown measures that have swept across the globe have only exacerbated this difference, with school closures leading to parents having to figure out how to manage childcare alongside their work responsibilities. “With less childcare available, the demand for unpaid childcare has fallen primarily on women, constraining their ability to take on paid work,” Dr Kluge said.

“Young women on low pay were already struggling to get by before the coronavirus crisis hit and since then many have suffered a loss of earnings due to having their hours cut, being furloughed or losing their job,” Levenson said. “Mothers have paid a particularly high price, with most childcare falling on them and enormous challenges of juggling home-schooling with work – with too little support from employers.”

Equality Now has described this as a “double blow”, with many suffering the collision of strained finances alongside the “unequal divisions of domestic labour” that the pandemic has worsened. “Women have always generally taken on a greater proportion of unpaid care work and it is unsurprising that during lockdown they have been bearing the brunt of household chores and home-schooling, with many simultaneously having to juggle this with working from home,” Hunt said.

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Decision making

Women may not have suffered so extensively through the pandemic, had their voices been apparent in decision-making processes. However, women continue to be underrepresented in decision making, and as a result, the legislation fails to adequately serve and protect them. “Women remain largely absent from national or global decision-making on the pandemic response,” Dr Kluge stated. “Global health has for all too long been led by men, delivered by women, reflected in the fact that women make up 70% of the health workforce but hold only 25% of senior roles,” he continued, explaining that the absence of women in leadership has been driven by stereotypes, discrimination and power imbalances.

“Even before the coronavirus pandemic, young women faced discrimination at work. However, current conditions have heightened this,” Levenson told us. Research from Young Women’s Trust found that one in 10 HR managers reported that they were aware of women aged 18-30 being patronised or their opinions being overlooked. The trust also found that 45% of women worked at organisations that employed more men than women in management or senior roles. 

Women face even more disadvantage based on race, sexuality and socioeconomic class across Europe. “The pandemic has compound pre-existing inequalities in the workplace and society more broadly, with women of colour and other vulnerable populations being disproportionately affected,” Hunt explained. Now marks an opportunity to rethink and rebuild for women who have disproportionately suffered, which Hunt thinks we should use.

“We need to use this moment as a turning point to restructure societies for the better and revolutionise employment policies, mechanisms and remuneration in order to provide better work opportunities and support for women of all backgrounds,” she said.

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Millie Turner is an Eat News correspondent in the UK who has received accolades for her features. She writes with special focus on international politics, corporate corruption, and the climate crisis.


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