A gender-biased pandemic: are women and men being affected differently by the COVID-19 crisis?

24 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the life of every person in one way or another. However, the magnitude of this effect will not be equal from person to person.

Emerging research from Dr Terry Fitzsimmons suggests that a person’s gender might be a significant factor that influences how greatly someone is impacted by this virus.

Dr Fitzsimmons predicts women will be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic for a number of reasons including the increased cases of domestic violence abuse, more pressure to take on broad domestic responsibilities including home schooling, and a higher percentage of women  losing their job.

Professor Terry Fitzsimmons

“Research undertaken by The Australia Institute in July revealed that at least 700,000 casual workers had lost their jobs due to their ineligibility for JobKeeper – the great majority of these were women,” Dr Fitzsimmons said. 

This research has formed the basis for the survey Dr Fitzsimmons is conducting. Terry discusses why he believes the findings of this survey will be sizeable. 

Why are you conducting this survey, and what are you hoping to achieve?

At a meeting for the Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC), there was widespread discussion and anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic and Government responses to the pandemic were not impacting equally on men and women.

The survey hopes to evidence whether there is a gendered impact of the pandemic and, if so, to inform Government policy around further interventions.  

How do you think COVID-19 may have impacted responsibilities for both genders?

I think the pandemic has exacerbated existing gendered fault-lines at both work and home. For example, for those women who bear the greater burden of childcare or other domestic labour, then working from home creates additional disruptions and time pressures.

This includes the simple choice of who gets to use quiet space in the home for Zoom meetings or other work, who gets priority on Bandwidth etc. These decisions and limitations are making it more challenging to work effectively depending on whose work gets prioritised.

 In the last decade, we have seen a growth in women in leadership. Do you think COVID-19 will undermine or take back the progress that women have made in these higher roles?

There has undoubtedly been a great deal of speculation in this regard. Much has been made of the glacial pace of progress for women into senior leadership roles in Australia, and it is worth noting that before the onset of COVID-19 there had actually been a decline in the number of women leading our ASX200 firms over the past three years.

Likewise, the decline in the gender pay gap has also stalled. Any disruption that disproportionally impacts upon women’s ability to progress their careers and gain the human capital necessary to make it to the top of their field will inevitably cause the numbers of women reaching peak leadership roles to decline.

Why is it important to investigate how different genders will be impacted differently by COVID-19?

Around the world, and particularly in Australia, we see decisions being made and policies being enacted that have not taken gendered impacts into account. This is often because women are either not present in these decision-making bodies or are in low numbers. Without the input of their perspectives, we are left with decisions that can unwittingly potentially benefit one group over another.

It is important that we evidence the impact of these decisions and policies so that Governments and businesses can address these unintended consequences.

Has the Government considered how different genders are being impacted by COVID-19 in their response?

There appears to be little evidence of this to date. In fact, early childhood educators were singled out as the first to lose JobKeeper eligibility in July. 98 per cent of early childhood educators are women. Likewise, the Government’s decision to reverse its decision of providing free childcare, has disproportionately impacted upon women, especially in families that are already in financial distress.

Invariably, based upon current models of the division of domestic labour, in such situations where a decision is required for one partner to stay at home to look after the children because of the unaffordability of care, it will be the woman who does so.

What effect do you hope this survey will have on government and industry policy?

We hope, should the survey provide evidence of gender impacts for females, that the Federal Government will reconsider current arrangements and have an eye towards considering the impact of its future decisions and policies.

I have to echo the words of the Academy of Science; “we stand at a crossroads where the work of the past 30 years in gender equality is being undone. If we do nothing as a country we will have set back the cause of gender equity by at least another generation.” 

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