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Coronavirus - Disparate gender impact - UK

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus - Workforce issues


Following on from our first briefing in this series considering the COVID-19 pandemic and diversity issues, Coronavirus: Disparate impact across ethnic backgrounds, in this second briefing we consider the impact of the pandemic on gender[1]. In future briefings in this series, we will consider the implications in relation to age and disability.

Whilst few impacts of the pandemic are gender-exclusive, a number of effects impact males and females in different ways. We therefore consider the gender disparity issues created by the pandemic, what practical steps employers should be taking now to address them and the potential impact if employers don’t take action.

Health risk and outcome: gender disparities

Around the world, a consistent pattern has emerged of higher COVID-19 death rates recorded among men compared to women. As was noted in a report based on figures up to May 2020 published by Public Health England (PHE), “diagnosis rates are higher among females under 60, and higher among males over 60” and working age males diagnosed with COVID-19 were twice as likely to die as females”. Further, that it remains unclear as to what is driving the differences in outcomes between males and females and that “further analysis will be required”.

Analysis of occupational impact by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) notes that men working in certain industries, including as security guards, drivers and in construction and processing plants, had significantly higher rates of death from COVID-19. Among women, there were also some (albeit significantly less) specific occupations that indicated higher rates of death, including sales and retail assistants.

However, occupational exposure to risk alone does not explain the disparity in health outcomes, with a high morbidity rate recorded across non-working males and females. A number of other explanations have also been advanced, including biological differences in how women and men develop and react to symptoms and social differences in seeking testing, diagnosis and care.

Wider impact: minding the gap

Health outcomes are just one aspect of the numerous impacts of the pandemic. Often overshadowed are the less obvious impacts that are not directly health-related.

At the highest level, job security creates a disparate gender impact because women are often disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected by the pandemic. Information published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicates that 41% of the of total female employed population are employed in sectors being at high risk of severe COVID-19 impact in terms of job losses and a decline in working hours”. For example, hospitality, travel and retail have been some of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic.

Job security is however no panacea for wider impact, with disparate gender impact also evident in other forms.

Businesses that have avoided the more significant negative commercial effects of the pandemic have often been in sectors where workers have been able to work flexibly during the height of the pandemic, including from home. However, with data indicating that the bulk of the burden of childcare often falls to women, including a report published by the ILO in May 2020 that noted 16.4 billion hours were spent in unpaid care work every day across the world, with over two-thirds performed by women”, disparate gender impact can arise in the juggle between remote working and caring for children.

For those working remotely, managing work duties and childcare responsibilities and the blurring of the lines between work and home life can increase pressure. This is often compounded by job security concerns, isolation, loss of career traction and the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic. Such factors all have the capacity to create additional stresses for workers, impacting mental health and potentially resulting in decisions to leave employment.

As workers start to return to workplaces, many employers offering a voluntary return have seen a higher representation of male workers returning to the office. Whether this is a temporary impact resulting from the transitional uncertainty of school re-openings, transport, childcare provision and local lockdowns, remains to be seen. However any long-term experience of this nature risks the creation of a two-tier workforce which, if not managed effectively to ensure continued effective contribution and recognition for those working remotely, could result in negative disparate impact.

Recent reports suggest that the pandemic has also resulted in a significant increase in domestic violence, with the national domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reporting a 49% increase in calls and contacts in April. Further, that measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have often increased the barriers to reporting abuse incidents and removed support networks, including within the workplace. In response, the government has recently announced the provision of additional emergency funding for domestic abuse services and published guidance specifically addressing access to help for domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Despite some positive progress being made in recent years in equality of pay, it remains the case that there is a significant gender pay gap, the latest ONS figures recording this as 17.3% for all employees. With the statutory obligation on large employers to publish gender pay gap data temporarily lifted due to the pandemic, it’s easy to see how this could slip off the agenda for employers. However, with recent ONS and PHE analysis confirming “the strong association between economic disadvantage and COVID-19 diagnoses, incidence and severe disease”, gender pay disparity is an important consideration in any pandemic response strategy.

Addressing the disparity: Practical action points

Risk assessments should address workplace health and safety risks, whether work is undertaken from home or on-site. Such assessments should ensure that measures to address risk areas are effectively identified, taking account of individual circumstances and supporting those who are at higher risk.

Whilst there are currently no government recommendations in place to specifically address gender-based health risk, it will be important for employers to ensure that there are adequate processes in place to ensure that identified measures are stringently applied and adhered to and that there are effective mechanisms for addressing concerns. Individual and wider workforce engagement will be key in this respect.

Remote working can have its own challenges, and businesses will need to consider how to protect the health and safety of workers in the new working environment, including mental health. Many employers are therefore considering how to extend existing wellbeing initiatives beyond the traditional workplace, including greater use of mentoring and peer support networks and initiatives to encourage a sense of responsibility for each other within the physical and virtual workplace. Additionally, the implementation of initiatives around domestic violence, including information about internal support contacts and helplines, mobile apps and other available support services.

As businesses struggle to keep afloat, it is often diversity and equality issues that take a back seat. However, with numerous studies showing that achieving gender equality is vital to profitability, performance, innovation and productivity, failing to address inequalities could have significant long-term implications. Further, as companies start to recover from the pandemic, access to the widest pool of skills and talent will be key to the ability to bounce-back from the economic effects, gain competitive advantage and achieve future resilience.

Diversity and inclusion strategy should therefore continue to be a priority as businesses navigate through the effects of the pandemic. Our “top tips” in this respect include:

1 Review existing D&I strategies to ensure they remain fit for purpose. Pay particular attention to recruitment and selection, remuneration and benefits, performance reviews, promotion and job retention, all being areas that may require amendment in view of new working arrangements, but where well-thought through strategies can have a real impact in addressing gender imbalance and maintaining a resilient and diverse workforce.
2 Review existing policies and procedures. For example, family friendly policies and associated internal communication initiatives can have a positive impact in encouraging greater sharing of caring responsibilities.
3 Monitor any disparate impact arising from return to offices. Whilst it may be assumed that a greater ability for workers to work remotely or hybrid models between work in the office and at home may present the potential for a levelling of the playing field for working parents, this may not be the reality.

Where new working models include remote working, ensure that there are effective mechanisms in place to ensure effective participation and recognition. It’s clear from the lockdown experience that technology and innovation has the ability to open the way for participation outside the office environment. Careful planning, including constructive positive management, will ensure that the benefit of this can be maximised.

5 Test the effectiveness of processes and identify any gaps. Many employers are making use of diversity and inclusion surveys, enabling and encouraging workers to raise issues and make suggestions as to how issues can be addressed. Particularly in the current environment where there may be concerns about job security and associated concerns about speaking up, anonymous surveys can be particularly useful.


Equality is a key concern for all businesses, however issues can often be challenging. Drawing on extensive experience and in-depth knowledge, our team of discrimination lawyers can assist in navigating the issues and finding appropriate solutions in this complex and sensitive legal area.

[1]           It should be noted that the statistics and analyses we have referenced in this briefing limit gender data to sex assigned at birth. In all other respects, we use the term gender in the widest inclusive sense, including those identifying as a particular gender.