By Madison Kerr, Economist at Pro Bono Economics

From the very first days of the pandemic, we knew that women would experience disproportionate social and economic impacts. That’s what happens to the main caregivers of the sick and children in society during outbreaks of infectious disease. It was women who bore the socio-economic brunt of Zika. It was women who lost jobs and stayed out of work for longer after the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Even the Black Death had a greater impact on women.

Covid has been no different. Despite being forewarned about the effects on women, we seem to be sweeping them under the carpet.

The disproportionate economic and domestic fall-out felt by women over the course of the pandemic has been well reported (if still, as discussed below, under-appreciated). Women were more likely than men to lose their job during the first national lockdown, and they have been more likely to be furloughed and for longer periods of time. They have also conducted more unpaid housework, more childcare and more home schooling: a product not just of being more likely to be out of work but also of the persistence of traditional attitudes to gender roles. Work from the IFS has shown that mothers who stopped working during the pandemic performed twice as many hours of childcare and housework compared to their working partners, but fathers who left employment split childcare and housework equally with their partners.

How have these social and economic consequences affected the lived experience of women and men? Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has damaged reported personal wellbeing for both sexes over the past year. But women’s wellbeing appears to have been hit harder, with twice the scale of decline in mental wellbeing recorded by men. Women have reported consistently lower scores across multiple measures; experiencing more loneliness, anxiety and depressive symptoms for instance. The below chart shows that more women have experienced high levels of anxiety compared to men throughout the past year.

Percentage of adults reporting high levels of anxiety: All adults, Great Britain

Sources: PBE analysis of ONS, Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain and Annual Population Survey 2019

Notes: Respondents gave a rating from 0-10 for how anxious they were in the previous day. A rating was 6-10 were defined as having high anxiety.


The wellbeing impact is starker still when focusing on those juggling both jobs and children. Working mums with more than 15 hours of child-care responsibilities per week have experienced a larger decrease in their wellbeing compared to mothers with fewer childcare responsibilities. Likewise, levels of stress appear to increase with the number of children in the household. Home schooling has been a particular source of concern – and one which has grown over time. In April and early May 2020, around one in three women reported that their wellbeing was negatively affected by home schooling a school age child; by the start of 2021 the proportion had jumped to more than one-in-two. Men too reported a deterioration associated with home-schooling over time, but levels remained below those recorded by women (with the proportion saying their wellbeing was negatively affected rising from one in five to 45% over the same period).

Of course, the pandemic has shone a light on many other forms of inequality and inequity, with differences in economic, social and wellbeing outcomes by income, race and disability for instance. Where those impacts have intersected with the gender dimension, effects have had the potential to be larger than the sum of the individual parts.

For example, recent research found that working mothers with household incomes of less than £20,000 were eight times more likely to say they were at risk of losing their job due to school closures compared to mothers in household income greater than £40,000. And black African women are 130% more likely to work in health and social care roles than white British women, increasing their personal exposure to Covid. Meanwhile, disabled women were up to 3.5 times more likely to die from Covid than non-disabled women.

Yet these widespread impacts on the wellbeing of women – and more especially mums – across the country are not being recognised by large parts of the public. Around 9 in 10 respondents to a recent King’s College London survey did not think, or did not know, whether the pandemic had a larger impact on women than men. Furthermore, the public did not perceive gender inequality to be at risk of increasing, with only 17% of respondents thinking that it would grow as a result of the pandemic.

That’s not to say that women haven’t noticed: researchers at the University of Birmingham and Kent found that during the first lockdown approximately half of mothers perceived both their families and their work at being at odds with one another while only a third of fathers felt that their family prevents them from spending time working. And organisations like the Women's Budget Group and Young Women’s Trust have been raising the volume on the pandemic’s effect on women and potential policy solutions to increase their overall wellbeing.

As lockdown restrictions ease and the country continues its recovery from the worst elements of the health crisis, the hope is that much of the economic damage we have endured over the past 12 months can be reversed relatively quickly. Unfortunately, switching the economy back on won’t produce an overnight reset, with unemployment expected to spike as the furlough scheme gets phased out. We can once again expect women to be disproportionately represented among those facing adverse labour market outcomes, with the near-term future for many high street retailers remaining somewhat uncertain for instance.

The crisis has highlighted the fact that a ‘reset’ isn’t what’s needed. The wellbeing of women in the UK has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, but the truth is that it lagged male wellbeing even before Covid hit. The experience of the past 12 months, like the experience of all past pandemics, has shone a very clear light on the structural inequalities that persist in Britain: inequalities which hold some groups back during the good times and actively expose them to damage during the bad. The challenge the government – and indeed the country – now faces is to target rapid recovery not just in GDP but in the broader wellbeing of the population. That means restoring economic growth, but it also means getting to grips with the issues around housing, caring, health, education, crime and autonomy which make such a big difference to the lived experience of individuals. Recent PBE analysis indicates focusing purely on increasing economic productivity may miss the mark on improving the wellbeing of people and communities. Foregrounding the needs of those groups hit hardest by the pandemic – including women – must surely be at the heart of any agenda which purports to ‘build back better’. Anything less risks sustained negative shocks to their wellbeing and their ability to recover.

30 April 2021