“The pandemic has made it glaringly obvious how much society depends on the free and unacknowledged labour of women.” - Covid Realities participant Nellie K
This time last year the odds were already stacked against women. Women are more likely to be in insecure, low paid employment; women are more likely to be in poverty; and women carry out more unpaid work than men. It seemed certain the pandemic would make inequality more pronounced. But how have things panned out? Twelve months later we want to share the experiences of low-income women who are part of the Covid Realities project.
Dorothy T reflected on all the extra, unpaid, work she is doing at home:
“Life for me during the pandemic as a woman means I have to take on so many roles. I am the school teacher, the friends, the absent father and the cousins. I am the hairdresser and barber. I feel like a live-in unpaid maid. Tied to the never-ending pile of dishes. I am the one person who has to constantly explain why we can’t go places, why we can’t see people. I am the one that spoils all the fun because I am trying to keep my family safe, healthy and happy.”
Playing multiple roles, and the toll that can take, was also something Lexie G shared:
“The pressure I’ve felt has been phenomenal, trying to balance being a mother, wife and home-schooling teacher. Knowing deep down that you are failing but having to keep the smile painted on and pushing forward."
Connie G highlighted how it feels to combine working at home with helping her children with school work:
“Life is busy. It’s parenting. It’s working. It’s home schooling. It’s being solely in charge of the household. It’s all the domestic chores… It’s entertaining three children. It’s meal planning, food shopping and cooking for three meals a day every day… It’s exhausting.”
Alongside this exhausting juggling of roles, women on low incomes have faced enormous financial pressures during the pandemic. Not only have many women’s jobs been affected both by the lockdowns and needing to care for children during school closures, but with children at home, costs have gone up. Dorothy T shared her financial concerns:
“At a time like this money worries should be a distant memory. If we need to stay home we should have enough money to provide everything we need to keep our family safe, warm, well fed. With all the necessities required to carry out home schooling and provide a little fun to break the boredom of spending 23 hours a day at home alone.”
Teddy W, a single parent with one child, reflected on the support that has been available through the social security system:
"My move onto UC [universal credit] and the sheer frustration I felt drove me to become part of a wider campaign for change. Driving families into dire poverty is simply no longer acceptable. The long term impacts on the household and the children is scary.”
The big question is why hasn’t the government helped? We’ve already joined trade unions and women’s organisations writing to the EHRC asking them to investigate whether the government’s response during the pandemic discriminated against women. Last week the chancellor had a chance to put some things right and use the Budget to help women and children living on a low income. Extending the £20 uplift to universal credit for six months was a vital step, because struggling families can't keep afloat without it. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
We need reform to our social security system because universal credit discriminates against women. And we need a comprehensive childcare strategy, including extended schools, to ensure women can work in decent, secure jobs.
This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating all the women who have given so much this year – and we promise to stand with them in their fight to make things better. Covid Realities participant Nellie K sums it up for us all:
“We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’, it’s time for change.”
Note: The project on which the above draws has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.