Applying a gender lens to the COVID-19 crisis: evidence from the UK

By Karla Drpić - August 3, 2020

Image saying "70% of healthcare workers risking their lives are women". #TargetGenderEqualityThe economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt at all levels of society across the world, but women’s livelihoods are at particular risk. Women are more likely to be in temporary, part-time and precarious employment than men, and economic downturns such as the recession expected to follow the current crisis are likely to exert a disproportionate impact on women. According to research from McKinsey & Company, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the current crisis than men’s jobs, and while women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses.

In addition to these challenges, the COVID-19 crisis has amplified additional burdens for women, including greater health risks due to women’s overrepresentation in essential jobs, a disproportionate burden of care for family members, and difficulties accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on women is crucial for ensuring the well-being of societies and economies around the world. Coordinated international action, including the commitment of businesses to use the Ten Principles as their guide to respond to the crisis in a gender-sensitive way, will be critical to achieve this goal.

COVID-19 and gender equality across UK businesses

The latest evidence from the Target Gender Equality COVID-19 Quiz developed by the United Nations Global Compact shows that among UK-based companies which have taken the quiz, commitment to advancing gender equality during the COVID-19 crisis remains high and policies and practices seem to be reviewed accordingly.

Visual accompaniment of statistics related to companies' commitment to advance gender equality and review relevant policies and practices accordingly.

UK companies score a few percentage points higher than the worldwide and European averages on leadership commitment to advancing gender equality and achieving SDG 5 (95%), inclusion of women at the decision-making table and active informing of companies’ COVID-19 responses (97%), and assessment of company policies and practices to support working parents and caregivers during the COVID-19 outbreak (83%).

Nonetheless, they score slightly lower on company policies and practices to support the health and well-being of female workers (67%). Companies should ramp up their efforts to protect their female staff, especially women working to keep workplaces safe and healthy. For example, cleaning of buildings is dominated by female workers (73%). Employers should ensure that these women have access to safe working conditions, appropriate equipment, and equal pay.

In addition, UK companies are somewhat less committed to applying a gender lens to philanthropy, data collection, and value chain.

Visual accompaniment of statistics related to applying a gender lens to philanthropy, data collection, and value chains.

74% of surveyed companies have considered how the company's products and services, as well as philanthropic/charitable efforts, could be leveraged to support women and girls. For example, UK banks may provide loans to women-owned businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis via the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). As for charitable efforts, donating to women-led NGOs like Women for Women International will help the world’s most vulnerable women to weather the current crisis.

65% of surveyed companies are collecting sex-disaggregated data. Sex-disaggregated data allow for the measurement of differences between women and men on various social and economic grounds and are one of the requirements in obtaining gender statistics. This is of significance during COVID-19 because while data show that the virus seems to be more dangerous for men than women, new research from the Centre for Economic Policy Research shows that this is closely related to the split of men and women in the workforce, with the percentage of the full-time workforce comprised by women correlating with the percentage of female COVID-19 deaths across countries. In addition to shedding light on important issues like this one, sex-disaggregated data allows for more and better policy dialogue on gender equality and provides a solid evidence base for development policy.

Only 41% of surveyed companies have taken action to help mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on women workers across the value chain. Initiatives such as the #PayUp campaign are recognising the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on workers across the supply chains of prominent brands, particularly in the female-dominated clothing industry, and are calling on major retailers to pay for in-production and completed orders in full and on time during and after the crisis. Honouring commitments to workers across the value chain is therefore crucial to ensure respect for labour rights and human rights of women during the pandemic.

Much more work still needs to be done in the areas of marketing, support for women-owned businesses, and action on domestic violence.

Visual accompaniment of statistics related to applying a gender lens to marketing efforts, support for women-owned businesses, and action on domestic violence.

In the UK, only 39% of surveyed companies considered how their company’s marketing and advertising can be leveraged to promote gender equality during COVID-19. While out-of-home, cinema, and print advertising suffered as a result of the pandemic, in-home media usage went up, including TV viewership and use of social media platforms and streaming services. Businesses should therefore ensure that their digital marketing and communications during and after the crisis promote positive gender roles and ensure diversity in women’s representation. UNICEF and UN Women’s COVID-19: Promoting positive gender roles in marketing and advertising is a good resource for businesses wishing to do better in this area.

Only 15% of surveyed companies have taken steps to help mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on women-owned-businesses and support their recovery. While men are more likely to be self-employed or own businesses than women in the UK, on average, women start their businesses with 53% less capital and tend to work in sectors most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, such as personal services, care, health, community, education, and social activities. Women-led businesses are therefore likely to be among the hardest hit by the current crisis.

British businesses can mitigate this situation by including more women-owned microenterprises and SMEs in their supply chains, which also makes business sense from a financial point of view. For practical guidance on how to start taking action on this issue, please see UN Women’s guide, The power of procurement: How to source from women-owned businesses.

Finally, only 30% of surveyed companies have taken action to respond to the increase in domestic violence that has resulted due to COVID-19. In the UK, since the introduction of the COVID-19 restrictions, over 4,000 domestic abuse arrests have been made, and domestic abuse calls have risen by around a third, according to the Metropolitan Police. Making things worse is the fact that many providers of critical support and services for survivors of violence are struggling to remain fully operational during the pandemic.

Businesses should and can do more to bring these numbers down. Companies should develop appropriate guides and policies designed to enable managers to provide adequate and timely support to colleagues experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Examples of guidance on this issue include the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guide for managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse and Business in the Community’s COVID-19: Domestic Abuse Toolkit for Employers. For practical examples of business taking action on this issue, see Vodafone’s Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy Guide.

The way forward

While UK businesses are increasingly recognising the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, more attention still needs to be paid to the less-than-obvious issue areas where companies can create positive change for women during the current crisis.

Diversity and inclusion during COVID-19 should remain a strategic priority for companies wishing to have a positive societal impact and recover from the crisis in a swift and effective way. Applying a gender lens to all functional areas of business is one of the ways companies can ensure this and pave the way for a world where nobody is left behind, in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Ten Principles of the United Nations Global Compact.