The government is coming under mounting pressure to produce a targeted women’s strategy to tackle the unequal economic and domestic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as official data exposes the stark differences between the experience of men and women.
While more men have died from Covid-19, women’s wellbeing has been hit harder, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics.
Data shows that during the pandemic, women have been more likely to be furloughed, have spent significantly less time working from home, and have spent more time on unpaid household work and childcare.
The Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, the chair of the women and equalities committee, called on the government to ensure women were included in its drive to “build back better”, adding: “It is not good enough to look at policies in the round when we know women need even more help to just get back to where they were.”
Updated ONS data shows an almost 18% difference in the total number of coronavirus-related deaths for men, who also had higher death rates before the pandemic. Between March 2020 and January 2021 63,700 men died in England and Wales, compared with 53,300 women, according to the ONS.
The difference was more pronounced in the early stages of the pandemic: between 1 March and 30 April 2020, men accounted for 57% of the 38,200 deaths involving Covid-19.
Economic data shows women were furloughed in greater numbers. On 1 July there were 2.9 million women on furlough, compared with 2.7 million men, which by October had reduced to 1.2 million and 1.1 million respectively. At the end of December the number of women on furlough was just over 1.9 million, while the number of men on furlough had increased to just under 1.9 million.
The evidence that urgent action was needed was now overwhelming, said the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, Felicia Willow. “We need a cohesive strategy which puts the needs of women front and centre and we need the government to step up and take gender equality seriously,” she said.
Hopes that the pandemic could reduce the gender care gap between men and women were raised at the start of the pandemic, with men spending an extra 13 minutes a day on unpaid household work. But while at the beginning of the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, women spent 55% more time than men on unpaid childcare, in September and October 2020, women spent 99% more time than men on unpaid childcare.
A significantly greater proportion of women (67%) than men (52%) homeschooled a school-age child in January and February this year: 53% said it was taking a toll on their wellbeing, compared with 45% of men.
Mary-Ann Stephenson, the director of the UK Women’s Budget Group, said: “This shows what women know only too well. Over the last year unpaid care and domestic work has not been equally shared, with women bearing the biggest burden, with a knock-on impact on their paid work. Any strategy to build back better will only work if it recognises and addresses that unpaid work is at the heart of women’s inequality.”
Women reported significantly higher anxiety than men at almost every point since the start of the pandemic, in a period of the highest levels of anxiety ever recorded by the ONS. Women were 1.3 times more likely to report loneliness than men, while men were more likely to say they weren’t at all worried about the effect of the pandemic on their lives.
Research out on Thursday from the new British Social Attitudes report by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), seen by the Guardian, shows that the UK public are four times more likely to disapprove of mothers with young children working full-time than fathers.
In 2018-19, 17% of people said they disapproved of mothers with children under three working full-time, while 4% expressed this view when asked about fathers – an improvement on 12 years ago, when the figures were 37% and 3% respectively.
“There is some distance to travel before we can declare the end of the ‘gendered double standard’ for working mothers with young children,” said NatCen’s Gillian Prior.
Disapproval of having children outside marriage has fallen from 21% to 12% in the same period, while disapproval for divorcing when a child is under 12 fell from 28% to 16%.