Labour Research August 2021


Engaging with gender issues

Women’s experiences of working during the pandemic — whether in the workplace or in the home — have made the union case for a gender-sensitive approach to occupational safety and health even stronger.

Women workers have been on the frontline of keeping the country going during the pandemic, but a combination of sexism, discrimination and disadvantage has put the health and safety of many at risk.

“The coronavirus has dramatically exposed the structural inequalities in our society,” said Usdaw retail union general secretary Paddy Lillis. “It is women, many of them young women, Black workers, disabled and LGBT workers who have borne the biggest health and economic risks from the crisis.”

As the UNISON public services union sets out in its submission to the recent government’s Women’s Health Strategy consultation: “Women’s health is influenced by the jobs they do, their family responsibilities and their biology.”

Because of these factors, the impact of the pandemic on women workers has been different to that experienced by their male colleagues and they have faced particular health and safety issues as a result of Covid (see box).

Gender sensitivity approach

A gender-sensitive approach recognises that, because of the different jobs they do and their different societal roles, expectations and responsibilities, women and men may be exposed to different physical and psychosocial risks at the workplace.

Even when they are exposed to the same risks, sex and gender differences mean these can impact on women and men differently.

Gender sensitivity ensures that the occupational risks and hazards affecting both men and women workers are properly recognised and diagnosed, effectively prevented and controlled, and adequately compensated where work-related injury and ill-health does arise.

Greater risk of infection

While more men than women have died as a result of Covid infection, women workers are at greater risk of infection because of the type of work they do — often patient- and public-facing.

“Workers like teaching assistants, cleaners, health and social care staff are all more at risk of Covid infection and are predominantly women workers,” UNISON national health and safety officer Kim Sunley told Labour Research.


The shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, are well documented. For example, in November 2020 the National Audit Office reported that social care received only 14% of the total PPE distributed and 10% of its estimated need. But even where they got PPE, it was not necessarily designed for women.

“The images of healthcare workers with scars and blisters because of badly fitting masks has brought home the reality that ‘one size fits all’ is not the right approach to personal protective equipment,” said Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary of the Prospect specialists’ union. The union’s latest research revealed women are still consistently overlooked on this.

UNISON points out that: “The FFP3 type face masks used in health settings were built/designed for predominantly larger shaped male faces.”

In May 2020, the RCN nurses’ and BMA doctors’ unions wrote to the British Safety Industry Federation, the UK’s leading trade body in the safety industry whose members include manufacturers and distributors.

The unions highlighted concerns around the production of PPE “which disproportionately does not fit female users”, even though 89% of the UK nursing workforce and 48% of doctors are female. They asked the industry to review its design.

Sunley says women going through the menopause have also struggled with the heat generated by having to wear “layers of PPE” including gloves, aprons and masks for long periods of time.

“We’ve had reports of healthcare support workers drenched in sweat for their full 12-hour shift,” she said.

“And it’s not just the menopause. Women members with endometriosis or heavy periods and working long shifts have had to put on and take off PPE while working under intense pressure with a lack of access to breaks. Some have been unable to get to the toilet to change their sanitary protection.”

Pregnant workers

Meanwhile, unions have highlighted the appalling treatment of pregnant women. Law requiring employers to carry out pregnancy risk assessments has been in place for nearly 30 years.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which replaced earlier 1992 regulations, require employers to carry out a workplace risk assessment for all their workers and identify any risks to pregnant women or new mothers. Yet, Sunley says, “pregnancy risk assessments have come as a revelation for some employers”.

And Usdaw reports: “Almost without exception employers appeared unaware of the right pregnant women have to be suspended on full pay where suitable and safe alternative job roles do not exist.”

A June 2020 TUC poll of more than 3,400 women who have been pregnant or on maternity leave during the pandemic found that one in four felt unsafe at work. Forty-two per cent said they had not had a workplace health and safety risk assessment.

Of those who did, almost half (46%) said their employer did not take the necessary action to reduce the risks identified, and a quarter said the risk assessment did not include the additional risks posed by Covid.

The NASUWT teachers’ union points out that government advice and guidance considers those who are pregnant to be “clinically vulnerable” and therefore at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

But as the second wave of the pandemic hit last year, the union’s general secretary Patrick Roach reported “a resurgence of sex discrimination in the workplace” and “appalling treatment of pregnant teachers who have faced escalated workplace discrimination during the pandemic”.

Research by the campaign group Maternity Action, the UCU university and college union and UNISON found the picture for those in insecure work was even worse. The additional stress insecure work causes was exacerbated during pregnancy. Some interviewees had concerns about safety issues in the workplace, particularly in light of Covid, but could be reluctant to raise them because of fears of repercussions.


There has been a huge move to homeworking during the crisis. UNISON’s annual equalities survey of almost 9,000 members found that 40% of members were working from home, for example.

For many women, this has increased flexibility and provided a better work-life balance. But for others, said the union’s national officer, Josie Irwin, “it has been exhausting, stressful, isolating and miserable”.

Usdaw reports a sharp escalation in domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, with emergency calls to helplines and online searches for help rising by as much as 300%. The crisis has also led to higher numbers of domestic homicides, it reports.

While men can be the victims of domestic violence, it predominantly affects women.

“Isolation, social distancing and the fear generated by the virus offered new opportunities for abusers to intimidate and control partners,” said Usdaw. “These factors made it more difficult for survivors to access safety and support networks.”

The NEU teaching union produced a toolkit to support members affected by domestic abuse, including a model policy and a checklist for reps and leaders.

Similarly, “care is a gendered issue, and care responsibilities over lockdown is no exception,” UNISON points out.

Polling of women teachers by the NASUWT found 67% believed they shouldered the responsibility for the majority of domestic and caring roles, along with continuing to work, compared to just 8% who said this was not the case and 17% who said they shared the responsibility with others.

In January 2021, the TUC and campaign group Mother Pukka reported an unprecedented number of working mothers — 50,000 — responding to a joint call for evidence about work and childcare commitments during lockdown. Nearly all of those who replied (90%) said their anxiety and stress levels had increased during the latest lockdown.

The UCU reports women having to juggle working at home with childcare and workloads that are not diminishing while experiencing additional stress through being expected to be “au fait” with new technology and adapting work to online only.

Its women and disabled members have been raising this as a key concern since the start of the pandemic. The union’s motion to the 2021 TUC women’s conference set out the need for carers to be entitled to a reasonable adjustment in workload and, when schools or care provision close, the right to a reduced workload without detriment.

Prospect highlights recent research by Stirling university management school and Edinburgh university business school showing women homeworkers had worse experiences during lockdowns than men. It found homeworking tended to reinforce gender roles, with women taking on greater domestic and caring responsibilities.

The research also found that women were less likely to have dedicated workstations than men, which will obviously lead to all sorts of musculoskeletal disorders and stress problems. Men were more likely to have a desk in a spare room, for example, while women are more likely to be at a dining room or kitchen table.

In UNISON’s annual equalities survey, one in 10 disabled members reported a lack, or removal, of reasonable adjustments when working from home. This meant that disabled women members faced a double burden while trying to work from home, especially those who have children.

In its priorities for the new 2021-22 academic year, UCU Scotland says all plans need to be equality impact assessed and consider the way Covid-19 has differential impacts on people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, women, LGBT+ groups, people of different ages, and those with caring responsibilities.

Long Covid

In the future, long Covid will be a huge issue, particularly for women workers. Prospect reports that while men are more likely to be admitted to hospital with Covid, women are more likely to suffer from long Covid (14.5% of women compared with 9.5% of men).

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show around a million people in the UK are suffering from long Covid symptoms, with the prevalence of self-reported cases greatest in people aged 35 to 69 years, females, people living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with another activity-limiting health condition or disability.

More than a thousand people registered for a TUC webinar on long Covid at the end of June and TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said she hoped this would be “the start of a moment for justice”. The TUC is calling for long Covid to be recognised as an occupational disease so affected workers can receive compensation through the no-fault Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme.

The NEU has produced guidance for, and is surveying, members about long Covid. And it has warned school and college leaders that punitive action under absence management or other procedures is inappropriate.

Given that staff may have contracted Covid at work, the union is asking them not to apply such procedures to staff diagnosed with long Covid or awaiting such a diagnosis and to agree not to count absence against sick pay entitlements.

Future homeworking arrangements

Future homeworking arrangements, and the potential effect on women, are another key current priority for unions.

For many, workload has increased considerably since the first lockdown and Prospect is among those calling for a “right to disconnect” — where employers are legally required to agree rules with staff about when staff can and cannot be contacted for work purposes.

“Government policy must be driven by data, not dates,” Sunley emphasised. “There will be a lot of anxiety about returning to the workplace after working at home.

“Employers have to handle that sensitively, carrying out individual risk assessments and adopting a phased approach, with recognition that many women workers will have to put new child and other care arrangements in place. Flexibility is key and the right to flexible working from day one is really important.”

She also called for recognition of the mental health impact of Covid on health and social care staff, who “saw and experienced the worst”.

Winning improvements

During the pandemic, unions have been able to make a difference and win improvements, both for workers generally and for women workers.

For example, flexibility is key in helping to prevent stress and mental health problems.

In June, health unions welcomed a deal that will make it easier for workers to request flexible working arrangements, including a right to do so from the first day staff are employed in the NHS. And UNISON national health and safety officer Kim Sunley highlights the August 2020 Department for Work and Pensions announcement that new help would be available to disabled people working at home.

This saw an extension to Access to Work — the employment support scheme that aims to support disabled people start or stay in work — to include support for specialist equipment, travel costs and mental health.

UNISON had argued for such an extension, meeting with Treasury officials in July 2020 to press its case, and described the changes as a “major victory”.

Work with progressive trusts on issues including the menopause and domestic violence, predating Covid, has continued throughout the crisis. And winning individual risk assessments for Black workers in the NHS is another important gain.

Taking an intersectional approach and recognising the additional risks for women with other protected characteristics is crucial, Sunley added.

One positive development is that some unions have seen an increase in membership over the course of the pandemic (see Labour Research, July, pages 9-11) with a number also reporting an increase in the number of safety reps.

And the latest TUC biennial survey of safety reps found that around a third (34%) are now women compared to just over a quarter (26%) in 2018. This will help ensure unions continue to respond to the impact of Covid on health and safety through a “gender lens”.

Maternity Action, Insecure Labour – the realities of insecure for pregnant women and new mothers (

NEU, Domestic abuse and the workplace (

TUC, Working mums and Covid-19: Paying the price (

TUC, Workers’ experiences of long Covid (

Oliver Mallett (Stirling Management School), The place for women’s work is in the kitchen? The location of work during the COVID-19 pandemic & beyond (