We may be forgiven for thinking that Covid19 has been one of the greatest democratisers of our lifetime due to its equalitarian approach to infecting people. But Roxana Mohammadian-Molina argues that women are on the frontline of the looming economic crisis and strong urgent measures are needed to prevent the pandemic taking a greater toll on women.
As scientific communities around the world work tirelessly to increase our knowledge of the novel coronavirus, there is one element that has become increasingly clear about Covid19: its equalitarian approach to infecting people. Rich? Poor? UK Prime Minister? Iranian MP? Reigning Prince of one of the richest countries on earth? Seventy-year-old pensioner in a Spanish care home? Hollywood actor? Anonymous nurse in an Italian hospital? Archduke of Austria? Football club manager? Don’t care. World leaders who once were the decision makers for the fate of millions of citizens, now realise they can’t even decide their own fate. We are told that we are all in it together. And in some ways, we are. The world seems to be more united than it has been for a very long time. Here in Britain, bickering over Brexit has been shelved and the nation comes together united in clapping for NHS and care workers.
But are we really in it all together? In order to respond to this question, we mustn’t forget that despite the current public health national emergency, Covid19 is also ultimately an economic emergency. The virus might not be a respecter of rank, yet what happens after the virus attacks – the accompanying economic shock that comes with it – is. And sadly, women seem to be at the frontline of this economic emergency. A recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that women will be harder hit by the crisis than men: in the UK they are one third more likely than men to work in sectors that have shut due to the crisis. As shown below, women represent a larger share than men in shut-down sectors across all age group.
Figure 1. Share of employees in shut-down sectors, by gender and age
Source: Institute of Fiscal Studies
Challenging times require bold actions. In the current environment, the entire women’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — policymakers, funders, supporting organizations, educators, researchers, the media and indeed women themselves — need to take swift bold action to expand or create policies that will address women’s specific needs. One answer, but not the only one, is to support women entrepreneurs. According to Prowess – an online hub for women-friendly business support – self-employed women delivered most of the new jobs underpinning the UK’s economic recovery following the global financial crisis of 2008. Since the downturn over a decade ago, 58% of the newly self-employed have been female. There are now almost 1.5 million women self-employed in the UK, up by around 300,000 since before the economic downturn. Other countries show a similar experience: the US’s Survey of Business Owners shows that between 2007 and 2012 the number of women-owned businesses jumped by 27% while privately held businesses grew by only 3.3%. And while women are at least 20% more likely to cite necessity rather than opportunity as their motivation, most are still opportunity driven, particularly in innovation-driven ventures.
At a time when some argue up to 1 million UK jobs may be destroyed, it will be paramount to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of women-led start-ups and we support women entrepreneurs in order to create new jobs. Undoubtedly, access to capital is key. According to the UK VC & Female Founders report, for every £1 of VC investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than 1p, all-male founder teams get 89p, and mixed-gender teams 10p. This is a grim statistic that we will need to change if we want to prevent the pandemic taking a greater toll on women.