COVID-19 and gender-competent leadership

Written by: Emma Ritch, Executive Director, Engender

Published: 01/06/2020

What's needed to ensure women's rights don't regress because of the pandemic and responses to it?

There can be few events as exposing of leaders as a global pandemic. The demands to act quickly and sure-footedly to keep people safe, to parse the scientific and medical advice into strategy, and to galvanise the machinery of government to deliver the crisis and medium-term responses, are intense. Political leaders are judged by the stark metrics of tests delivered, people diagnosed with COVID-19, hospitalisations of ill people, and the number of their citizens who die.

Gender justice advocates would argue that there is another vital yardstick against which to measure leadership in this moment. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis response and recovery could either see a rollback of women’s rights or a step towards a world in which women have more equal access to resources, power, and safety.

Previous pandemics have highlighted the costs of failing to think adequately about women and girls’ needs. In the Zika, MERS, and Ebola pandemics vital resources for girls’ education, family planning programmes, and other women’s health initiatives were disproportionately diverted towards disease-focused healthcare. These decisions have had profound and long-lasting effects and pushed women’s equality work back a generation in some communities.

In Scotland, the gendered COVID-19 issue that has garnered the most public attention has been domestic abuse. Across the world there have been well-founded concerns that lockdown would bring an intensification of domestic abuse as women and children had fewer opportunities to leave their homes and less scope for interacting with schools and other services that might provide respite or support.

Flying inexplicably below the policy radar, though, has been the displacement of childcare and care work from services to families. Contrary to descriptions of crashing productivity, women have found themselves busier than ever: supervising home-schooling, squeezing childcare and paid work into a day, and managing their households. Tellingly, nearly half of men told a Morning Consult poll for the New York Times (this link will take you away from our website) that they were doing the majority of home-schooling but only 3 per cent of women agreed that this was true.

Pre-Covid, women in opposite-sex headed households were overwhelmingly likely to be the ones balancing the tottering tower of their family’s work-life balance. An insufficiency of childcare, especially for disabled children and the children of shift workers, meant that women were more likely to be working in precarious, low-paid employment, dependent on informal childcare arrangements from family and friends, and struggling to make public transport work to get them where they needed to go (this link will take you away from our website). Proposals that have been trailed for the next phase of COVID-19 response are heavily reliant on staggering use of public transport, maintaining social distancing, and reducing the school day for individual children. With women’s resources already depleted by a furlough scheme that didn’t meet their needs, the tottering tower is about to collapse on women’s heads (this link will take you away from our website).

The costs of failing to get a grip on women’s needs should frighten us. Women’s economic inequality is a cause and consequence of violence against women. Women who are stretched thin between paid work and unpaid care and household management do not have the headspace to take part in community and civic life, the training ground for the elected members of tomorrow. There is a strong likelihood that an economic recovery that continues to disregard the distribution of unpaid care between women and men will see the gender pay gap tick up in Scotland after years of gentle decline. Women’s equality with men will take a damaging backwards step.

Leadership that pays attention to the specific needs of women and girls, and uses gender-sensitive sex disaggregated data (this link will take you away from our website) in decision-making is called gender-competent leadership. It overlaps with the idea of representative leadership, because women who bring their lived experience of sexism, violence against women, maternal health services, and juggling paid work and unpaid domestic work tend to be more attentive to these issues in policy and political spaces.

We have a gender-balanced Cabinet in Scotland and a female First Minister with powerful communication, political, and policy skills coupled with substantial emotional intelligence. During the course of the crisis both the Permanent Secretary and at least one cabinet secretary have written to officials delivering the COVID-19 response to remind them of their legal and moral obligation to integrate equality and human rights into their work. However, gender advocates have long pointed to a lack of gender-competence within public bodies in Scotland that is presenting an insurmountable barrier to delivering equitable outcomes for men and women, boys and girls. Just before lockdown, Scottish Government committed to scaling its equality unit up into an equality and human rights directorate and to building gender expertise across its directorates. This piece of gender-competent leadership may not have come soon enough.


This Opinion is part of a specially commissioned series by the ALLIANCE’s Academy programme looking at COVID-19 and the Five Provocations for the Future of Health and Social Care.

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