Covid-19: An economic crisis for women

Anna Johnston documents the disproportionate impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on women.

Image: Jeyaratnam Caniceus

The Covid-19 pandemic is both a public health crisis and a global economic crisis. Although few will be immune to its economic effects, we are not ‘all in this together’. As I discovered whilst writing a recent report on the impact of Covid-19 on women, the current crisis rests on foundations of gendered structural oppression. With the legacy of austerity disproportionately hitting women, and the consistent devaluing of feminised vocations such as childcare, education and health and social care, the pandemic has exacerbated already prevalent gender inequalities.

Prior to the crisis, women were more likely to be low earners and in part-time, temporary and zero-hours work. The consequences of structural inequalities in employment and care, and cuts to public services, meant women were already the majority of those in debt and were more likely to become insolvent. Women were consistently more likely to struggle to pay bills and run out of money. It is therefore no coincidence that women are experiencing greater levels of debt, mental health decline and employment and financial precarity than men; and those facing the worst shocks include Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women, mothers, and migrant, young and disabled women.

Those with children are often harder hit economically when crises happen than those without. The number of families receiving emergency food parcels from food banks has nearly doubled, and at the beginning of July 4 million families were predicted to be in serious financial difficulties by the end of the month. Mothers have lost their jobs, had hours cut or been furloughed at a higher rate than fathers. Before the crisis, mothers were in paid work at 80% of the rate of fathers, and this has now dropped to 70%. 42% of single parent families – almost 90% of which are headed by women – anticipated living on less than £500 per month during the lockdown.

A report from Sutton Trust found that 34% of nurseries in the most deprived areas and 24% in the least deprived areas are likely to close in the coming year. As parents are expected to return to work without adequate childcare in place, two-parent households will be forced to elect a parent to stay at home and look after the children. Because of the widening gender wage gap and gendered care norms, it is likely that the responsibility of staying at home will be falling mostly to mothers. With only one income to rely on, single working mothers could face even tougher challenges.

The crisis has seen 26% of women anticipate a fall in income, compared with only 18% of men. Low paid and insecure workers – who are more likely to be women, young and from BAME groups – have been disproportionately affected. Women make up the majority of those in many key sectors but are also the majority of workers in shutdown sectors. Young women have been particularly affected as they were the majority of workers in hospitality and non-food retail, which has seen many businesses suffer significant job losses, or closing their doors completely.

Women from minority groups are particularly impacted. BAME women have seen one of the sharpest drops in income, and they were already more likely to be in low-paid work. Polling by the Women’s Budget Group with Fawcett Society and academics from Queen Mary University and London School of Economics found that close to half (42.9%) of BAME women said they would struggle to make ends meet in the coming months, and expected to be in more debt than they were before the pandemic. Even more worryingly, a quarter of BAME mothers are struggling to feed their children. A third of disabled mothers are also struggling to feed their families, and disabled women are the group most likely to say they will be in greater debt as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis.

With incomes falling, and increasing redundancies forecast over the coming months – particularly following the end of the furloughing scheme in October – these existing financial issues for women will only worsen. Staff in frontline services told me in interviews that they were particularly concerned about growing personal debt, and the likely increase in insolvency debt relief orders, as the economic crisis deepens.

Whilst the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employed Income Support Schemes have supported many women over the past four months, there have been many for whom such safety nets have not been applicable. Our research also confirmed significant issues with Universal Credit – in relation to its calculation of benefit by household, and the five-week initial payment delay. I spoke to debt advice specialists and women’s organisations who raised concerns that women and families were having to rely on informal family and community support to keep their heads above water while their claims were processed.

The situation is even more concerning for women living on the margins of society, who are often not entitled to any government support. Migrant women with no recourse to public funds often turn to work in the informal economy (which is not protected by the state and therefore untaxed and unregulated), much of which will have halted during the lockdown, leaving them destitute. VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) organisations are concerned that the hostile environment is leading women in this group to delay seeking medical advice and help in cases of domestic violence for fear of being reported to immigration services. The government must put an end to the hostile environment and suspend the no recourse to public funds status.

Another group of women often operating in the informal economy who have been largely ignored are sex workers/women in prostitution, many of whom have been pushed towards engaging in riskier situations with potentially more dangerous clients. Women engaged in or at risk from street prostitution/sex work have often been temporarily housed in mixed accommodation with pimps and drug-dealers, putting them in dangerous and triggering circumstances without adequate wrap-around services. We need to see gender and trauma-informed policy supporting these women.

Unsurprisingly, this collision of multiple crises has led to high levels of psychological distress and anxiety. Whilst this has increased for both women and men, it is women who have consistently seen their mental health decline. Young women, mothers of young children, ethnic minority groups and key workers have been the worst hit, with one in three women being affected; while 46% of mothers of younger children have reported feeling highly anxious since the start of the crisis. The chronic underfunding of many frontline and women’s services will see them struggle to meet this growing demand in the coming months.

Whilst the chancellor’s summer statement on 8 July brought welcome investment to address youth unemployment and create green jobs, the measures do little to support victims of domestic violence, NHS and social care staff, people with disabilities and low-income families, and they fail to address the looming childcare crisis. The Women’s Budget Group recently released a briefing on our case for a care-led recovery, which would see large-scale investment in childcare and social care jobs and training, paying workers a decent wage and ensuring high-quality care for all.

Investing in a care-led recovery is greener, and creates almost three times more jobs, than the equivalent investment in construction, and it reduces the gender employment gap. Our Commission on a Gender Equal Economy is also working to proactively develop alternative economic policies to promote gender equality across the UK. In order to properly address the intersecting gender inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19, we must use gender responsive budgeting to radically re-structure society, putting care for people and planet at the centre.

This article was informed by Covid-19 report: The Impact on Women in Coventry, from the Women’s Budget Group and Coventry Women’s Partnership, funded by the Smallwood Trust. It is the first report of its kind to look at the impacts of Covid-19 on a range of women situated across one city. Whilst focusing in on Coventry, it also shows how women’s lives have been affected across the UK.

Anna Johnston is Research Assistant at the Women’s Budget Group. Previously she worked for Rosa, the UK Fund for Women and Girls, and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.