How coronavirus policy has failed women across the EU

Women have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. They populate the jobs on the frontline, hailed by governments as “heroic”, and yet are simultaneously forgotten about in coronavirus policies which often put women at unnecessary risk on the job, financially and at home. Here’s why gender matters and why EU countries must do more to protect our predominantly female frontline.

Not all medical professionals incur the same level of risk of contracting the virus despite working in the same hospitals. The staffers who spend the most time face-to-face with coronavirus patients and who are equipped with the least personal protection equipment (PPE) will be taking the highest level of risk.

The responsibility of caring for patients routinely falls not to doctors, but to nurses, as reflected by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s testimony to the nurses who were with him “24/7” during his time spent in intensive care. Across the EU, when we refer to ‘nurses’ we are in effect referring to women because the profession is dominated by females without exception across the Union. In the UK, 89% of nurses working in hospitals are women. This figure rises to 91% in Sweden, 95% in Poland and Hungry and 99% in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Across the EU, it’s women who are most exposed to contracting the virus within our hospital staff.

Despite this significant level of personal risk that nurses must take by virtue of their profession, government policies often forget about them. Across the EU, governments have focused on arming doctors with PPE to protect them from contracting the virus. While this is a worthy cause and of course doctors should be protected, this focus means that ultimately, it’s nurses and therefore women who lose out. In response, the Royal College of Nursing has recently demanded intervention over the lack of PPE provision granted to nurses and vicariously, to women.

This argument can be repeated for caring professionals, who adopt a similarly staggering level of risk to nurses with even less protection. In the UK, 58% of carers are women and their PPE protection is the responsibility of individual care home they work for meaning that in reality, many go without any protection at all. Let’s not forget, the majority of caring is unpaid. Between 10% and 25% of the entire EU population also act as carers for family members or friends. These are called “informal workers”. In Italy, 62.4% of informal carers are women. This figure rises to 62.9% in the UK, 66% in Greece and 70.1% in Portugal, meaning that yet again, it’s not just carers who are the “heroes” at risk on our frontline and forgotten in protective policies – it’s predominantly everyday women.

These workers are also at most financial risk as our nursing and caring sectors suffer from significant gender pay gaps. Across the EU, female health workers earn 28% less than their male counterparts. While the pay gap is difficult to measure in terms of unpaid, informal care, the European Union have argued that the overall pay gap of 16% may in part be due to the fact that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women – and of course the fact that women are paid less in general also means that everyday women are at greater financial risk overall.

Finally, women are most at risk at home. One third of women across the EU have experienced physical or sexual abuse, and yet few governments have taken steps to assess, let alone solve, this widespread problem. Knowing that domestic violence was problematic before coronavirus erupted, governments should have predicted the unprecedented rise in domestic abuse that lockdowns would cause. In some EU countries, lockdowns have resulted in such violence increasing by one third, UK domestic violence killings have more than doubled and Refuge has reported a 150% increase in site traffic to their domestic abuse help page. While domestic abuse impacts both men and women and all cases should be taken with equal severity, 73% of victims of domestic homicides between April 2014 and March 2017 were women, making this yet another gendered issue forgotten by policymakers – perhaps because they are unlikely to be women themselves.

The professional, personal and financial risks that women are disproportionately forced to take have rarely been recognised by policy. Despite the launch of a €37billion crisis fund to help EU countries tackle coronavirus, of which €3 billion went to supporting health care systems, nothing dictates how much of this should be spent protecting specific types of workers. This has meant that nurses – and therefore women – have routinely been left behind.

Financially, women have also been forgotten. A number of EU countries have introduced furlough schemes, meaning they will pay a percentage (most commonly 80%) of the wage of those who can no longer be kept by their employer. This means that women’s pay, which is already 16% less than men on average across the EU, may be decreased a further 20%, exacerbating the gender pay gap and resulting in further losses by an already penalised demographic. Not only this, but support offered for self-employed staffers has also been designed without women in mind. In the UK, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the government will pay up to 80% of self employed wages, as determined by tax returns over the past 3 years. This means that if a self employed worker has taken maternity leave at any point over the past three years, diminishing earnings, her salary support won’t be recuperated.

No EU member state has implemented any kind of policy, funding or support to reflect the rise in domestic violence mentioned above. In fact, funding has only decreased for domestic violence support, as funds and government attention has been diverted to others also in danger due to coronavirus. This yet again reflects the invisible nature of problems deemed to “women’s issues”.

The EU and member governments must specifically look at women – often worst impacted by a crisis for the above reasons – when considering future crisis policies. If not, they will be forgotten about and put at unnecessary risk as they have through coronavirus. If these workers really are our “heroes” on the coronavirus frontline we should give them the protection and recognition they deserve.

The multilingual Whitehouse team are experts in politics and policy development across the European Union, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients. More information about our European experience can be found here and more about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our European Director, Viviana Spaghetti, at