Employers need to do more to promote flexible working for women, and provide support to mitigate against violence and domestic abuse during emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

The report, ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women, Employment and Health Inequalities’, highlights how existing inequalities facing women worsened and affected their working lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It highlights opportunities for employers and government to take action to improve women’s health and wellbeing, including addressing working conditions, unequal loss of income, and support for domestic abuse and coercive control.

Liz Green, Consultant at Public Health Wales, said: “Our work highlights the clear and potentially long-lasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women, and particularly women in the workforce.  While an important look back, we believe these findings offer valuable insights for employers and governments when considering future pandemic preparedness.

“We have highlighted several key areas for future research which acknowledge existing inequalities facing women. This includes identifying how low-income groups and lone women parents were impacted by the pandemic, given the significant challenges posed by women changing roles and working from home.

“In addition, the longer-term impacts of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence need to be explored, in tandem with the ongoing cost of living crisis.

“As time progresses, we need to continue gathering evidence on the impact of the changing employment culture on women’s wellbeing and career progression, to ensure women do not find it harder to re-enter the economy post-pandemic”. 

During the pandemic over three quarters of workers in high-risk roles (including care workers, nurses, medical professionals, paramedics, pharmacists and midwives) were women.  98 per cent of those undertaking these roles and being paid below the median wage were women.

Women are more likely to be carers and make up the majority of lone parents, but despite this half of flexible working requests from working mothers are denied. In addition to challenges in the workforce, Refuge (the UK’s largest domestic abuse organisation) saw a 60 per cent increase in monthly calls during the pandemic period whilst many women were expected to work at home or be furloughed which increased their exposure to violence and domestic abuse. These figures paint a challenging picture of women’s economic, mental and physical health and wellbeing.

The pandemic impacted women unequally depending on characteristics such as age, ethnicity, disability or being a lone parent, with many women having multiple and intersecting characteristics. Young women were disproportionately impacted due to school, college or university closures, while older women were found to be me most likely to leave the workforce during the pandemic with resulting financial consequences. Disabled women were more vulnerable to the unintended consequences of lockdowns due to pre-existing higher levels of mental health problems, social isolation and digital exclusion, while one report found a higher percentage of ethnic minority women were unsure where to turn for financial help compared to white individuals.

Whilst certain impacts were positive for some, such as a move to more flexible and home working, the negative impacts have led to several suggested actions for employers and the wider health and care system to take.

In the workplace, more support for flexible working is needed and employers should seek to ensure women can report any issues they have safely. Thinking ahead to future pandemic preparedness, employers need to recognise the emotional and mental strain on women in public health emergencies. More widely, to mitigate against violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence (VAWDASV) there is a need to increase access to, and join up, services for women across health and other support systems. 

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(Public Health Wales)