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COVID-19 is not gender neutral

First published 17 March 2020 in Broad Agenda

Policies and public health efforts are scrambling to catch up with the spread of COVID-19. Hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation will all contribute to containing the exponential rise in cases. But none of these measures address the gendered nature of pandemics and why the burden of the disease will largely be felt by women.



In the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 we can lose sight of what should be a basic health policy principle: pandemics, and their resulting economic shocks, affect men and women differently. Physical, cultural and social differences between men and women can influence how vulnerable they are (caring roles increase exposure), co-morbidity (women may be pregnant, men smoke more), and self-protection (women may have less decision-making power).

An article in the  The Lancet urged more research to understand the gendered impacts of COVID-19 in order to create “effective, equitable policies and interventions”. There are, however, some conclusions we can draw now, based on readily available information that shows that, yes, women are more vulnerable to the broader impacts of COVID-19.

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Amid the panic buying that is seeing supermarket shelves stripped of essential items, one thing is clear: stockpiling is not an option for the economically vulnerable. Stockpiling is expensive. ACOSS’s 2018 reportshows that in Australia, more women than men live below the poverty line. Statistics from the ABS last December, found women were the majority of those receiving long-term Newstart or Youth Allowance and the majority of those receiving parenting payments. Stock-piling is not only beyond the reach of the poorest, it also has the potential to make them more vulnerable as poverty makes it harder to search for supplies when they run out locally, or to pay more if there is a price surge.  Because of their economic vulnerability, women have reduced capacity to build up supplies against future shortages or quarantine.

Women are also over-represented in the industries both heavily reliant on casual workers and likely to be hit hard by an economic downturn.

Another area of concern is the impact on casual employees. There are more women than men working in casual employment without sick leave entitlements. Women are also over-represented in the industries both heavily reliant on casual workers and likely to be hit hard by an economic downturn. For instance, data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows women make up 57.7% of retail workers. But they make up majority of retail workers in fashion (84.2%), department stores (66.1%) and furnishings and homewares (71.3%) – all retail sectors already under strain. The combination of insecure employment and exposure to economic shock will hit women hard.


Women will bear the impact of closing universities, schools and childcare centers. Women are the majority of workers in these settings – 57.9% of university workers (particularly in non-management, professional, clerical and community service roles); 72% of those working in schools and a whopping 95.6% of childcare workers.

It’s not clear how or whether staff would be paid if there are shutdowns, or whether parents would continue paying fees. We should assume that in the event schools and childcare centres close, women will more likely have to change their work arrangements to care for out of school and out of care children, possibly taking a hit to their pay, or running down their own precious leave in the process.

The face of our healthcare response – and the risk and hard work inherent in that – is a female one.

The economic impacts, and potential for whole workplaces to be shut down are still playing out, but we already know the demand on the health workforce, and the risks that healthcare workers face. Here women are on the front line. Women make up 80% of hospital workers, including as the majority of professionals, technicians and labourers. Women are 83.9% of the general medical practice workforce, again as the majority of professionals, but also as the majority of clerical and administration staff. Furthermore, 77% of the pathology and diagnostic imaging workforce are women, and women make up  81.8% of residential aged care workers.

The face of our healthcare response  – and the risk and hard work inherent in that – is a female one. And this means that there is a tension between our need to ensure the health workforce is at peak capacity and the considerations around school closures because caring for kids and caring for the community comes back to women.

Women are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their economic insecurity, over representation in certain sectors of the economy, their caring responsibilities, and the feminisation of the education and healthcare sectors. We know this now – we don’t need to wait for research to make sure COVID-19 responses meet the needs of women.

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Better together apart: Connecting in the time of COVID-19

First published 31 March 2020 in Broad Agenda

Skype, Zoom, Google Duo, FaceTime, Messenger video, Blue Jeans, Slack – COVID-19 is forcing many of us to (very rapidly) upskill our videoconferencing abilities, knowledge and manners. But these new ways of connecting could also help change the unwritten rules about who we give voice to and set a higher bar for inclusion in meetings and conferences…

Among the indescribable heartache and distress of COVID-19, I spy a silver lining – we are being forced to think differently about how we connect with each other.

With international conferences and workshops cancelled, COVID-19 is forcing us to move to online and virtual alternatives, providing an opportunity to develop and model more inclusive meeting practices.

COVID-19 is forcing us to move to online and virtual alternatives, providing an opportunity to develop and model more inclusive meeting practices,

The move to online meetings significantly broadens the pool of possible participants. This point is not lost on the disability sector, with Australia’s Second Virtual Disability Conference – planned well before the COVID crisis – which is taking place today.

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As well as the reduced environmental impact, virtual meetings allow us to collaborate and share ideas without having to bid or fund raise for travel budgets and conference fees. We don’t need to take a week away from our other work to participate or push through jet lag. With virtual meetings, we don’t have to worry about whether we can access a venue or whether the food meets our health needs. We have quiet space to care for our mental health and there is a greater potential to combine participation with caring duties.

With virtual meetings, we don’t have to worry about whether we can access a venue of whether the food meets our health needs.

By engaging virtually, we create greater opportunity to engage with, and learn from, a far more diverse group of people. I hope this means that we see increased voices from the Pacific, often excluded from international meetings because of the prohibitive cost and long commute times involved in travelling from the Pacific region. I hope we also see increased engagement with civil society which is also constrained by small budgets.

But we also need to be careful not to assume that online meetings necessarily improve access. Participation still requires a decent internet connection, an appropriate device and somewhere quiet to engage – resources not available to all. We shouldn’t assume that virtual meetings can be easily combined with home schooling or other care responsibilities, or that virtual spaces are accessible for those with disabilities. We should engage early with participants to ensure meeting methods and times are accessible, and we should encourage  post-meeting feedback and lesson learning.

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Virtual formats are also an opportunity to interrogate what constitutes a ‘good’ meeting and to intentionally aim for inclusion. Tamerlaine Beasley argues that “online forums, if they are structured and managed effectively can be even more inclusive than offline”.  Alice Chautard and Dr Claire Hann have developed a guide for inclusive conferences which has lessons relevant for virtual meetings – including that different formats can change dynamics and support diversity.

Similarly, a new guide by the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centre notes that online meetings require a different mindset and scale differently. Apolitical’s excellent resourcefor online meetings advises querying why a meeting is necessary, investing in prior planning, and be deliberate in efforts to support inclusion. When things are not business as usual, we can stop doing the usual things that are no longer working. Critically, we can make deliberate decisions to break down old habits, including who we give voice to.

Those of us navigating this change are simultaneously out of our comfort zones, while also in our familiar spaces.

But what excites me most about virtual meetings is that this may be an opportunity to connect with each other as whole humans. Those of us navigating this change are simultaneously out of our comfort zones, while also in our familiar spaces. This combination of working together to figure out to how do things differently while wearing jeans and ugg boots appears to be creating a quite delightful air of generosity, humour and solidarity.

I’m wary of advice to make sure we strictly control the space behind us in a video call (though you should definitely mute and try to avoid having your camera pointing up your nose). I like seeing people in their specific spaces and I definitely want to meet your pets. Likewise, if you can see that cupboard behind me is reminiscent of Dr Who’s Tardis or if my dog comes in for a pat, or a teenager lollops past, you know a little bit more about me.

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That might mean we can be a little bit more connected. I believe that if we can be more connected on a human level, we can understand each other better and we can be more generous with each other – and in that generosity and understanding we can be more inclusive.

A genuine commitment to inclusion requires us to share power, to redesign the table we are inviting people to sit at, and to value diverse leadership, decision-making and collaboration approaches. This was necessary before COVID-19 changed the world, and it will be necessary after. I see this in-between time not as a pause, but as a reset and an opportunity to develop set new standards for inclusion for when we can once again meet face to face. And that’s exciting.