Maternity services were disrupted, pregnant women were misinformed about the vaccine, and the burden of homeschooling was catastrophically overlooked during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
And now, we might know why.
Women were – and still are – dramatically underrepresented across all Covid advisory boards, according to new research by the Fawcett Society.
Just 34% of pandemic advisory board members were women in November 2021 when the research was conducted. And at the height of the pandemic, only two out of 56 government press briefings were led by a female politician.
The data shows how women are underrepresented across all Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and related subgroups. These are the people informing politicians – and ultimately influencing policy that impacts women’s lives:
Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – 28%
Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) – 39%
Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) – 24%
Covid-19 Clinical Information Network (CO-CIN) – 11%
New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) – 20%
Environmental Modelling Group (EMG) – 21%
Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – 25%
The charity’s biannual Sex and Power Index reveals that less than a third of UK’s top jobs are filled by women nationwide, with politics one of the slowest areas to improve – the proportion of female MPs moved from 32% in 2017 to 34% at the 2019 election.
Representation matters across all sectors, but the impact has been felt even more acutely during the pandemic, where women have borne the brunt of rules and restrictions.
HuffPost UK has reported extensively on the disruption to maternity and postnatal services during and after lockdowns – and how normal services were not prioritised, despite the damaging impact on women’s mental and physical health.
Women have also shouldered the majority of childcare and homeschooling responsibilities during the pandemic. And is it any surprise?
Who could forget this government advert, which was panned for sexism and “reinforcing the view that it is a woman’s job to homeschool”.
Separate research in 2020 by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed revealed that 15% of mothers had either been made redundant or expected to be made redundant during the pandemic. And of those, a shocking 46% said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy.
A huge 72% of mothers had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, and 65% of mothers who were furloughed said a lack of childcare was the reason.
Almost half (45%) of pregnant women working outside of the home had not had an individual risk assessment conducted at the time of the survey, increasing to 52% for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse pregnant women.
Then there’s the debacle about vaccines for pregnant women to consider.
Research soon showed the Covid vaccine was safe for pregnant women and their babies, but this information was not distributed quickly or consistently enough to pregnant women or those trying to conceive.
In fact, HuffPost UK heard from women who were given misinformation by their midwives or vaccine volunteers when trying to access their jab.
A public health campaign urging pregnant women to get vaccinated only came after high numbers of unvaccinated pregnant were admitted to intensive care units with Covid.
For a long time, women’s health, wellbeing and livelihoods appeared to take a back seat. Jemima Olchawski, CEO of the Fawcett Society, wonders if this was due to a lack of representation in leadership and advisory roles.
“The pandemic has laid bare deep-rooted inequalities across the UK. Yet it is women who have borne the brunt and often largely invisible from debate and excluded from decision-making. Women of colour, disabled women, young women and mothers have been at the sharpest end,” says Olchawski.
“It begs the question then” what if more women were at the table and making key decisions, would women across our society have felt the impact of political decisions throughout the pandemic so severely?”
Lauren Fabianski, campaigns and communications manager at Pregnant Then Screwed, says she’s really not surprised by the latest figures.
“Anybody who has been paying attention can see that women (and in particular mothers) have repeatedly not been consulted or considered when many of these decisions have been made,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“Following our case against the government which ruled that the Covid-19 Self Employed Income Support Scheme discriminated against new mothers in the way that it was calculated we are calling for transparent equality impact assessments and a gender advisor to scrutinise all policies, financial schemes and guidance put forward by the government. We’ve also launched This Mum Votes, which is a platform that aims to get more mothers into parliament.”
HuffPost UK has contacted SAGE regarding the underrepresentation of women and will update this article when we receive a response.
Elsewhere in the Fawcett report, analysis found that women are underrepresented across business, law and in top public service roles, with women of colour most absent.
Women make up just 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs, and none are women of colour.
Women account for 65% of secondary school teachers, but only 40% of headteachers. Just 6% of those headteachers are women from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The proportion of women editing national newspapers has risen to 42%, but the number of female political editors remains low at 12%.
And women make up only 27% of Court of Appeal judges and 30% of High Court judges. There are just two female Supreme Court Justices and no women of colour.
These numbers matter to us all. As Olchawski says: “The people who hold the top jobs in our society have enormous power to shape our democracy, culture and economy. Yet men continue to dominate most senior roles.
“That’s not only bad for the women who miss out on opportunities to thrive, but it’s bad for us all, as we miss out on women’s talent, skills and perspectives.”