International Women’s Day 2021– how has COVID impacted on women at work?

08 March 2021

Aissa Gallie, Head of Communications and Organisational Development at York & North Yorkshire LEP, reflects on how COVID has impacted on women at work as we celebrate International Women’s Day

When I was a little girl, International Women’s Day (IWD) was a highlight in the year. My mum was a feminist activist in the 1980’s and throughout my childhood we spent IWD attending and taking part in events that were alive with women’s voices, women’s art and women’s music from all over the world. Looking back, I reflect on the privilege of having so many women and men around me who championed equality for women. I grew up in a bit of a bubble.

My reflection on my experience of being a woman living, working and parenting through the COVID pandemic, is that I still live in a bubble, albeit a very different one. I can only write a personal reflection from a position of privilege. I am a white, middle class, professional, cis woman and as such, my exposure to risk and therefore mental distress, throughout the pandemic has been tempered by that context.

Working class women and those from minority groups have suffered disproportionate impact during the pandemic. In fact, research shows that of all social groupings, working class women are the most economically affected in the UK by the pandemic, and as a social group have seen the highest increase in mental distress.

There has long been an over representation of women in low wage occupations such as childcare, healthcare, retail and cleaning. Research by insurance agency AIG Life of 3,001 working adults also shows that 74% of women are the main carer for children and elderly relatives. In the context of COVID-19, bringing together these two factors of low wage, customer-facing employment and primary carer responsibilities, working class women are not only at highest risk of exposure themselves to the virus, they also see that risk potentially passed on to those they care for.

Furthermore, 40% of working women are employed in part-time roles. Part-time jobs fell 70% in the first 11 weeks of the pandemic. Research from the Office for Fiscal Studies details how mothers have been 47% more likely to lose their jobs than fathers, and mothers also are more likely to be furloughed and have their hours cut back 50% or more.

Those women in the workforce who were struggling for equality before the crisis will have faced the double injustice of being less able to isolate themselves from the health risks of coronavirus whilst economically taking the brunt of the pandemic. Locally, data shows that it is young women particularly who are suffering from an increase in unemployment.

Analysing economic data like this provokes in me an emotional response. I think about my own experience of distress through the pandemic, having spent a year torn in three, working from home, trying to meet expectations as a professional, a teacher and a mother all at once. And whilst I have shared in the concern we have all felt for our loved ones, , at no time in this last year have I ever felt that my employment put me or my loved ones at greater risk of infection from COVID-19, nor has my financial security or my ability to feed my family ever come into question.

In fact, my experience as a professional woman over this past year has shifted in some positive ways. Working from home, both mothers and fathers are able to bring the reality of their parenting into their professional workspace and be authentic about the challenges that has brought. Within my role at the LEP, the tsunami of demands of the pandemic on our teams saw me swiftly overcome any self-imposed imposter syndrome and crack on with my role as a leader. My confidence as a senior manager for our organisation has increased. This has been much supported by our strident work as a LEP to achieve gender parity on our boards. We have already reached the government target for gender parity on our boards by 2023, and later this month we will welcome our first female chair in the history of our Main LEP board.

At the LEP we have worked with partners, The Opportunity Centre, part of Aspire-igen Group, Yorkshire In Business and Beyond 2030 to create a new support programme designed to boost women in the workforce and enable women to prosper in York & North Yorkshire. Aspire2lead is a £1million project, part-funded by the European Social Fund and is being launched today on International Women’s Day. This is great news, yet the fact that the economic data tells us that there is still the need for programmes like this shows that we still have a lot of work to do to find genuine equality for all women at work.

This IWD, I will be reflecting on my privilege and asking myself how we ensure that we have genuine equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This years’ theme for IWD is #ChoosetoChallenge. I challenge everyone to recognise their privilege, whatever form it takes, and use that privilege to platform the experience of others. Related to that is the need to challenge our assumptions about women as a homogenous group and along with any assumptions that equality for women is only about women. When we understand the diversity of women, and the breadth of barriers and discriminations they face, we increase our understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion, stretching and strengthening our work that aims to raise opportunity for all people.

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