The Media is Covering COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Women. But Not The Underlying Gender Inequality That Made It This Way

Is COVID-19--and the lockdown--going to affect women, and gender equality in the longterm?

By: Jeremy Ullmann

A preliminary Google search for “women and Coronavirus” reveals several articles detailing how the mortality rates from Covid-19 may be higher for men. This should be good news for women. Unfortunately, it ignores the fact that the virus disproportionately affects them in different ways. They are more likely to shoulder childcare duties, lose their jobs, and have non-COVID related healthcare needs ignored, due to the pandemic.

“It caused immense stress,” said Sofie, a single mom, who, like many parents, has been juggling work and home-schooling her daughter ever since schools closed. Sofie declined to state her last name.

“I mostly work from home so having no childcare and having to home school has been challenging,” she continued.  “It is hard to be productive and looking after a child. I have had to really scale down or wake up very early to get some time alone to work.”

While the UK government’s website as well as other media outlets have been providing advice to help families cope with the challenge, neither acknowledge that women still disproportionately shoulder childcare duties. The Observer reported that within UK families, women typically provide at least 50 percent more childcare than men, as well as 30 percent more than home-schooling than male parents. This could be because women, according to Helen Lewis, more likely to be the lower earners in heterosexual relationships, meaning they could be expected to prioritise childcare over their work, if the higher income comes from their partner. This is already having real consequences on women’s careers, with unprecedented low levels of academic papers being submitted by women.  The UN reported how “COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights. [While,] at the same time as they are losing paid employment, women’s unpaid care work has increased exponentially.”

This is exacerbated further in single parent households, 90 percent of which are headed by women like Sofie.

This burden could have a long-term impact on women’s economic livelihoods. Many workers have had their salaries decreased or have been let go since countries around the world started imposing lockdowns. As women in the UK are already more likely to be working part-time, on zero hours contracts, or in otherwise vulnerable positions, they’re more likely to be let go. If past virus outbreaks show us anything, it is likely that women working in vulnerable jobs will also be a lower priority when it comes to rebuilding the economy.

“Everybody’s income was affected [by the outbreak],” said Dr. Julia Smith, a Research Associate at Simon Fraser University who has studied how gender impacted the Ebola epidemic.

“But men’s income returned to what they made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.”

For anyone who cares about gender equality, this is a grave warning. Without a gender-focussed lens on the media’s coverage of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, IMS Gender and Programme Development Advisor Emma Lygenerud Boberg warns that we risk making the same mistakes.

“The media risks contributing to a deepening of the crisis and of reversing equality gains for women all over the world,” she said in an interview.

It isn’t only women’s economic gains that are being impacted. It is also their health. In Sierra Leone, more women died of childbirth complications than the disease itself, a tragic side effect of the overstretched health system prioritizing the pandemic. In China’s Wuhan province, 100,000 sanitary pads had to be donated to female health workers by campaigners and members of the public due to a mass shortage caused by the lockdown. In the UK, smear tests and breast cancer screenings are being heavily delayed, prescription for birth control is difficult to obtain as GP practices are closed. All IVF treatments are also being put on hold, which, if there is a significant delay, would be a devasting blow to the many women depending on it to conceive.

Finally, domestic violence has increased due to the lockdown—with reports of domestic violence doubling in China’s Hubei province alone.

Isolation and financial abuse are common features of domestic abuse relationships, as Claire Barnett, executive director for UN Women UK explains: “when communities undergo additional stress – from disease, to drought, to their local football team losing a match – rates of violence rise”. Around the world, journalists and media campaigners are coming up with innovative ways to share domestic abuse hotlines with women in lockdown.

But despite covering these issues, few news outlets have dug into the underlying sexism and gender inequality that causes them in the first place. The European Institute for Gender Equality suggest that a key reason for this is the lack of women decision-makers:

“We mostly see men out in the public domain, making the news headlines. They are the ones who hold most of the positions of power in our society. In this crisis, it is usually men who are making all the important decisions, which affect the everyday lives of citizens. This imbalance of decision-making power means that women are left out from shaping the decisions that affect their own lives.”

To see this in action, look no further than the social media famous photo of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, which consisted of seventeen men in the situation room. Predictably, the principle decisionmakers in Boris Johnson’s cabinet are also, predictably, men. If the vast majority of news articles are parroting what they say, how can we expect the media to stand up for women, and actively interrogate the structures that are leaving them at such a grave disadvantage?

If decision makers do not understand how pandemics affect women more, the media need to call them out. The warning signs from previous outbreaks are there, so journalists cannot hide behind ineffective politicians that are not addressing the needs of more than fifty percent of the population. If the progress that women have made in fighting for gender equality is to be protected, we cannot afford to repeat past mistakes again.