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Working-Class Women – Forgotten Victims of the Pandemic

A new report on the impact of the Coronavirus and lockdown on working class women shows they had ‘worst of both worlds’, Sian Norris reports

Working class women were more likely to work in high-risk, front-line jobs such as social care during the pandemic. Photo: Carolyn Jenkins / Alamy Stock Photo

Working-Class Women Forgotten Victims of the Pandemic

A new report on the impact of the Coronavirus and lockdown on working-class women shows they had ‘worst of both worlds’, Sian Norris reports

Working class women have endured a significant decrease of life satisfaction since the start of the pandemic, a new report reveals today. 

The report, authored by Professor Tracey Warren from Nottingham University Business School, Professor Clare Lyonette from the University of Warwick, and the Women’s Budget Group, has measured the financial, equality and wellbeing impact of the pandemic on working class women compared to other workers. 

It found working class women’s life satisfaction has fallen further than men’s since the first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, with only 38% of working class women reporting “life satisfaction” in January 2021 compared to 48% of working class men and 43% of all working men.

This, the report authors say, “represented one of the lowest levels of life satisfaction among any group since the start of the pandemic.”

Working class women were also most likely to suffer psychological distress during the pandemic – with 36% of working class women reporting feeling psychological distress during the second lockdown in November. 

Low pay, shouldering the burden of housework and childcare, and increased likelihood of working in high-risk, front-line occupations may have contributed to reduced wellbeing. 

“Working class women have lower job security, a higher chance of being a key worker or being furloughed and/or having no hours of paid work, lower weekly salaries, higher financial hardship, as well as having lower opportunities to work flexibly than their middle class counterparts,” explained Professor Lyonette. 

“We can’t say with any certainty, but it seems likely that all of these factors will have a negative impact on psychological well-being and life satisfaction,” she added

Front Line, Low Pay

Working class women were disproportionately likely to work in high-risk, frontline roles during the pandemic, including in social care, retail and education. 

For example, 40% of female key workers are in health and social care roles, compared to 17% of male key workers. Within the sector itself, 80% of workers are women. 

Research from the University of Roehampton has recorded the mental health toll of the pandemic on health and social care workers, including staff experiencing PTSD symptoms related to the lack of personal protective equipment. 

But despite the high-risk to women’s mental and physical health, it’s clear from this new report that many of those working in frontline roles endured low-pay and insecure work, causing financial insecurity and related stress and anxiety. 

In November 2020, over half (59%) of working class women reported low weekly earnings. A low weekly earning is measured as being less than two-thirds of the median earnings for employed men and women. 

Analysis done by Byline Times in March found social care jobs during the pandemic were advertised at an average of £9 an hour – while directors of care providing businesses such as Runwood Homes and Barchester Healthcare took home between £2-4 million a year. 

Warren, Lyonette and the Women’s Budge Group learnt that, by the time of the second lockdown, 36% of working class women reported experiencing “financial hardship”. This was double the number of men in managerial or professional roles: 18% said they were “in financial difficulties” or “just about getting by” in November 2020. 

Although many working class women were classed as key workers during the pandemic, those working in other low-wage sectors were more likely to be furloughed (34%) than women in the managerial and professional class (16%) by November 2020.

Back to the 1970s 

The pandemic exposed and in some cases deepened existing gender, racial and class inequalities, with half of UK women warning that gender equality is at risk of “going back to the 1970s”. Women bore the burden of school and workplace closures during the first and third lockdowns, taking on more unpaid labour, particularly care labour, than their male partners. 

While the burden of housework and childcare has always disproportionately been shouldered by women, during the pandemic 70% of working women were doing most of the washing and ironing, with 61% doing most of the cleaning. This was higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

This was particularly true for working class women. 

Perhaps due to the fact that many working class women have key worker roles, very few reduced their hours or changed their schedules to accommodate home-schooling or childcare. This however did not mean they took on less unpaid labour in the home than women in managerial and professional roles.

Working class women did the most housework hours – with 52% doing more than 11 hours per week, compared to 40% of managerial or professional women. They were also most likely to take on the main responsibility for childcare. 

“Our research shows that working class women have been experiencing the worst of both worlds during the pandemic when it comes to paid and unpaid work,” explained Professor Warren. “They are faring less well than middle class women in the paid workplace and less well than working class men in the home.”

The report recommends that the Government takes action to strengthen workers’ rights, particularly around access to statutory sick pay and insecure working conditions.

Dr Sara Reis, from the Women’s Budget Group told Byline Times: “Working class women have been facing high exposure to the virus in key worker jobs but they have been badly rewarded. They need stronger employment protections, conditions and pay. Two important sectors for this group, childcare and social care, are on the brink and should be at the core of any build back better plans.”

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