Research from the World Health Organization shows that gender and sex fundamentally shape women’s and men’s exposure to an illness and whether and how they seek medical help for it.
It also shows that emergency situations like pandemics can deepen pre-existing societal inequalities, including gender inequalities and can exacerbate risk factors for (and therefore increase the level of) gender-based violence.
This blog post considers some of the ways gender and gender inequality interact with aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it. It does so with a focus on the three areas outlined below in Figure 1.
Vulnerability to COVID-19
Evidence suggests that gender shapes one’s vulnerability to COVID-19 in meaningful ways. For example, many of the countries that collect sex-separated data on COVID-19 (including Ireland, the UK, South Korea and the USA) display higher case rates among women, but higher death rates among men.
Although the exact reasons for these trends are unknown, they are likely influenced at least partially by societal gender roles and norms rather than having a purely biological basis. To give an example, women are more often cast in and assume caring roles - both formal (e.g. healthcare workers) and informal (e.g. looking after sick relatives) - and this may increase their exposure to coronavirus.
On the other hand, research shows that men in western countries in particular usually have poorer general health than women, are less likely to seek medical help if they become ill and/or seek it later, and are more likely to have underlying health conditions and engage in behaviours (e.g. smoking) which puts them at high risk of serious illness and death should they become infected with coronavirus.
Research and analysis suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women’s employment more severely than men’s employment. One reason for this is that the employment drop related to shut down and social distancing measures has had a higher impact on sectors with high female employment shares such as retail, hospitality and childcare.
A second reason is that women seem to have assumed more of the childcare responsibilities stemming from the closure of schools etc. than men.
For example, one US study found that mothers with young children reduced their working hours four to five more times than fathers with young children in the months following the shutdown of childcare facilities. We know that large inequalities already exist between women and men in employment; fewer women are employed than men, women earn less than men for the same jobs, and women are significantly under-represented in leadership positions. What we do not know is whether and how COVID-19 will increase that gap.
For instance, to what extent will the fewer hours worked (in paid employment) by women who are mothers’ impact on their future economic opportunities (e.g. merit-based promotion) and consequently the gender pay gap?
Reports from women’s organisations and service providers across several global countries suggest that domestic violence has increased following the COVID-19 outbreak. While the reasons for this have yet to be determined, research on other crises such as natural disasters and wars can inform us.
This research shows that these crises often increase risk factors for domestic violence, while at the same time decreasing the level of support available to victims. Experts on domestic violence warn that government-imposed measures such as social-distancing, stay-at-home and restricted travel although necessary to suppress the spread of COVID-19 have the unintended, negative consequence of compounding several of the known risk factors for domestic violence including relationship conflict, alcohol use/abuse, poverty and social isolation.
For example, unemployment has increased globally in the wake of COVID-19 and research consistently links increases in unemployment to increases in domestic violence.
Experts also report that victims of domestic violence have diminished access to help and support (e.g. from friends, families, colleagues, doctors, social workers and women’s/men’s refuges) as a result of stay-at-home and social distancing measures, and that these same measures increase the level of control of perpetrators of domestic violence over victims. Usher et al. warn that this combination of factors can create a “perfect storm” to trigger an unprecedented wave of domestic violence.
Women have been notably absent from many of the global and country level COVID-19 policy spaces. A report from Care International which surveyed 30 countries found that most national-level committees established to respond to COVID-19 do not have equal female-male representation.
Specifically, they found that among the countries who had established national-level committees, 74% had fewer than one-third female membership, and only one committee was fully equal. Perhaps unsurprising in this context was that the report also found that most countries surveyed had not introduced comprehensive measures to address gender concerns, such as the increase in domestic violence.
Countries that have more women in leadership were found to be more likely to deliver COVID-19 responses that consider the effects of the crisis on women and girls. Women have also been absent in media coverage on COVID-19; Women in Global Health report that only one woman is quoted for every three men in media coverage of COVID-19.
This blog post draws attention to some of the ways in which gender and gender inequality interact with aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it.
While the focus of the blog post is on gender, research also shows how other inequalities and forms of discrimination such as income, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and race (among others) are shaped and deepened by aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like gender, these are often not considered and/or addressed in policy, decision-making and planning for the COVID-19 pandemic.