By Ashleigh Swan

What effect does and will Covid-19 have on women’s lives? This was the question during our online meet-up on June 9th hosted by WIJ Chair, Eleanor Mills and a panel with Helen Lewis; author of ‘Difficult Women: A history of Feminism in 11 Fights’; Dr. Nighat Arif a GP who specializes in women’s health inequalities; Christine Armstrong author of ‘Mother of all jobs’ – How to have children and a career and stay sane(ish); Christine Farquharson from The Institute for Fiscal Studies; Sam Smethers CEO of the Fawcett Society and Alicia Drummond a therapist and founder of TeenTips.

Women’s Incomes Are Going To Take A Big Hit

Helen Lewis, one of the first journalists to write about the impact of COVID-19 on Women in The Atlantic earlier this year, explained that the pandemic was always going to be a disaster for feminism because the evidence was already there based on previous pandemics.

She used the example of Liberia during the Ebola outbreak, which saw domestic violence cases spike and had major effects on women’s wages.

“There was a lot of pushback on particularly because we found out that more men were dying but this isn’t just a medical epidemic, we need to talk about the social effects too.”

Helen went on to say that she is frustrated in the slowness of collecting data on the effect on women. And even more worryingly that the reporting of companies’ gender pay data was scrapped, “All the evidence suggests that women’s incomes are going to take a big hit and it is going to last for years.”

No Escape From Violent Partners

Although little data has been collected, groups like the Fawcett Society have been doing their own research. CEO Sam Smethers said: “We pulled together a big coalition of more than 80 women’s organisations to firstly consider the immediate impact of the crisis, we have another one about exiting the lockdown and there will be another about the programme for renewal.”

Their data also reveals that women have taken a large emotional hit during this crisis including high anxiety levels, particularly among young women, BAME women, and frontline workers.

“The thing that is really important about this, which was less the case in the 2008 financial crash, is that women’s jobs have gone first,” she said.

“From the very beginning, this government has not paid attention to the impact on women. What childcare is left now? And they didn’t think about women who can’t escape violent partners,” she added.

“The scale of this is like nothing we have seen before; we need to work with other partners to get them to talk about the gendered impact. If we don’t there will be massive consequences for women.”

The Fawcett Society are also running the Corona Diaries to capture the living experience of women.

Too Scared To Go To The Doctor

Dr. Nighat Arif, a GP who specialises in women’s health and inequalities revealed the impact on women. “They are too scared to come to the doctor,” she said. “They are not putting themselves first and that will have long term effects on their health. They are missing out on basic needs like HRT, which was scarce already, and contraception.”

“Women are expected to cook and clean. This is exactly what happened in my household,” she admitted, “but it’s unsustainable. As a woman who is educated, I am able to say, ‘Look I am not standing for this. We need to find a harmonious balance.’ ” However, finding that balance is not easy: “Not all couples have the communication skills.”

Not ‘Productive’ or ‘Present’ Enough

Christine Armstrong, author of Mother of all jobs – How to have children and a career and stay sane(ish), said: “Some managers are trying to performance manage people who are at home, perhaps solo parents with young children who are not being ‘productive’ enough or ‘present’ enough. They don’t understand the pressures on these households.”

There’s a domino effect says Armstrong, because people’s confidence will go down when they go back to work. “If you have been seen as unproductive and not pulling your weight during the lockdown, how is it going to feel when you go back?”

Christine is frustrated with the government’s handling of the crisis. “We can choose to open car showrooms, racing, pubs, or we can choose to open education, and the fact that we are choosing those things over education is completely damming, especially for women, because they are taking on more homeschooling,” she said.

However, one positive that Christine noted was that some of the businesses that she has been in contact with are trying to think about what they can do.

More Likely to be Interrupted When Working

Next to speak was Christine Farqharson, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who explained that during this crisis she and colleagues have been collecting data from about 3,500 parents around England asking them how they are spending hours of normal weekdays, with a focus on opposite-gender couples.

Christine noted two big lessons from the data collection. The first was that economics matters a lot.

“This recession is going to be unlike any other recession we have seen, in terms of how deep it is but also the impact on women. Typically, men will lose jobs during a recession, but during this crisis, we see that mothers are 50% more likely to lose jobs than fathers.” She says.

Additionally, Christine said that even when mothers are working, they are 50% more likely to be interrupted by childcare compared to about 1/3 of fathers working hours.

The second point from the survey was that economics is not everything.

“We also looked at how families are splitting childcare. And we found that although women are taking up by far the greater share of childcare, they are still doing more than dads, although fathers have actually increased their childcare by more.”

However, the downside is that even in families where incomes are roughly equally split, women are still taking the brunt of these domestic responsibilities. The one time that this isn’t the case is if the father has lost his job at the start of lockdown.

The final panelist to speak was the founder of TeenTips and therapist, Alicia Drummond.

She highlighted that since the start of lockdown parents have been extremely concerned about the mental health implications of isolation on teenagers, there have also been great concerns about the reintegration into school and the stress of homeschooling.

TeenTips have been running webinars on parenting during isolation with themes including the battle between screen time and the increased risk of conflict at home.

So, what is the solution to this crisis? What is the government doing?

Sam Smethers said that individual politicians are engaging, but not the inner circle. “It’s partly because they are reacting to events day-to-day that are not in their control.

“The government can decide how we build the country after this and we need a coherent program for renewal that includes functioning child-care infrastructure and parental leave.

Eleanor Mills then asked the panel what journalists can do.

Sam thinks that there needs to be an orchestrated attempt to get politicians to speak about the impact on women.

“They have clearly responded to the black lives matter demos and how extreme has that had to get in order to get some movement and change? I think we do need to be heard, so something like a National Strike of Women, something significant has to shift.”

The discussion ended on a positive note as Christine Armstrong asked if this was the time to look at childcare and schooling and start afresh.

The discussion left many audience members motivated to make a change. One member took to Twitter to say, “WIJ, after last night’s panel I wrote to my local MP urging her to alert the government to plan and help alleviate the negative impact of lockdown on women’s rights and sexual equality”.

Thanks to Donna Ferguson, who helped organise this brilliant panel, and has written about the issues in the Guardian & Observer.

WIJ is very grateful to Cision for their generous sponsorship of this event.

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