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Black Country Women in Leadership, launched on International Women's Day in 2019, champions working women across the region and helps provide a platform to promote their achievements whilst helping to mentor and encourage the next generation.


Its steering group, a collection of some of the region's leading businesswomen, educationalists, and political figures, looked at how the coronavirus is affecting women's access to equality and reviewed the figures released last month by the Women's Budget Group.


Perhaps it's the war lingo and the fighting rhetoric that means the government's response to the coronavirus has all been a bit macho.


It took over three weeks of daily Downing Street briefings before a female minister took the stand – Priti Patel on April 11th.


But how exactly is the coronavirus affecting women's safety and access to equality? And how should the government address the impact on women?


The crisis has led to an economic downturn, with even the most conservative estimates pointing towards a devastating rise in unemployment. According to analysis from the Women's Budget Group, whose Commission on a Gender Equal Economy has identified pre-existing economic inequalities, the crisis will increase the economic challenges women already face.


Women are more likely to be in insecure or low-paid work, and low-paid workers are seven times more likely to work in a sector that has been shut down since the crisis began. While the furlough scheme has helped ensure women's incomes do not completely collapse, any drop in an already low wage is going to increase financial pressures on low-income families. At the same time, women make up the majority of workers on zero-hour contracts. While they are covered by the furlough scheme, the Women's Budget Group expressed concern employers may be more likely to simply cancel shifts.


Then there's unpaid care work, the vast majority of which is done by women. On April 4th, the government announced an extension to its furlough scheme to cover employees for whom childcare makes it impossible to work. This was positive if a poorly publicised step. However, with women already more likely to take on unpaid caring responsibilities than men, and the majority of single-parent families headed by women, the crisis will only increase women's unpaid care burden.

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Exposure and Health

Women make up 77% of workers in roles that are designated as high risk for exposure to the coronavirus. They also make up 77% of healthcare workers, ranging from doctors to cleaners, meaning women really are on the frontline of fighting the virus.

Data from Italy showed that women healthcare workers were more likely to contract the virus than men. Here in the UK, data from Wales shows that working-age women are catching coronavirus at higher rates than men, simply because they're more likely to be working in roles where they come into contact with carriers.

According to the Women's Budget Group, the “current pandemic is exposing the unfairness of the labour market where some of the most essential workers are among the worst paid”. They point out that women care workers take home, on average, £385 a week – £200 less than the UK median earnings. And yet, these are workers responsible for protecting the lives of the sick and vulnerable – often while putting their own health and wellbeing at severe risk.


Crises collide - key facts: 


  • Women are the majority of health and care workers. 77% of healthcare workers are women, as are 83% of the social care workforce.


  • Women are the majority of workers with the highest exposure to COVID-19. Of the 3,200,000 workers in ‘high risk’ roles, 77% are women. Over a million of these workers are paid below 60% median wages. 98% are women. 


  • Young women are disproportionately likely to work in the sectors that have been hit hardest by the lock-down. 36% of young women and 25% of young men worked in sectors that have been closed including restaurants, shops, leisure facilities and travel and tourism.


  • Women are more likely to be low paid and in insecure employment. Women are the majority of low paid earners (69% the majority of those in part-time employment (74%), involuntary part-time employment (57%), temporary employment (54%), zero-hours contracts (54%) and part-time self-employment (59%).


  • Women are the majority of people living in poverty and female-headed households are more likely to be poor. For example, 45% of lone parents (90% of whom are women) are living in poverty.


  • Pre COVID-19, women were more likely to struggle with debt and bills. 39% of women and 34% of men reported it was a struggle to keep up with bills, some or most of the time, 26% of women and 23% of men said they ran out of money by the end of the month and 29% of women and 23% of men said they would not be able to make ends meet for a month or less if they lost their main source of income. 


  • On average, women carry out 60% more unpaid work than men. This means they earn less, own less and are more likely to be living in poverty.


Source: Women’s Budget Group

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