On this International Women’s Day, we are paying a special tribute to women working on the frontlines in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Women make up approximately 70% of the global healthcare workforce, meaning most of the healthcare heroes that fought against Covid-19 on the frontline were, and continue to be women. Nevertheless, women only make up 25% of the leadership in the healthcare field.
In a hospital setting, perhaps unsurprisingly, a higher proportion of female healthcare workers were also infected with Covid-19, with statistics ranging from 69% in Italy, 75.5% in Spain and 73% in the United State.
One possible reason for this, as recorded in scientific literature, is that personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, have been designed to fit males, where even the smallest size in some cases are too big for some women.
While the virus itself is not biased towards a particular gender, it has definitely created an added burden on female healthcare workers when compared to their male colleagues.
Studies have revealed that among frontline workers, there are significant gender-related behavioural differences when it comes to communication with patients. Females are more likely to engage in a more empathic approach in comparison to males. This could explain the higher prevalence of burnout in female frontline works which was reported in Japan in a study published last August.
Since women predominantly take on the role of family caregivers, work-life balance for women working on the frontlines has also taken a significant hit and has overloaded them more than ever before.
The silent burden of the “invisible extra shift” that includes the pressures of planning, prioritising, and scheduling their domestic responsibilities and caregiving duties, has led to a higher prevalence rate of anxiety and depression – and even suicide in some cases -among female frontline workers.
While there have been substantial efforts across global organisations to improve gender discrimination in the workplace and gender-related policies, this global crisis has proved once again that it still exists and there is definitely more that needs to be done.
In all cases, it is vital that women are included in the brainstorming and decision-making process when it comes to designing tailored strategies to cope with the added burden brought about by the pandemic, as well as equal representation in leadership when it comes to pandemic response.
In fact, findings from a study from the University of Liverpool have shown that female-led countries have a relatively better performance in the fight against Covid-19, revealing that female leaders tended to lock down earlier and experienced an overall Covid-19 mortality rate that was half as large as their male leader counterparts.
This suggests that women leaders acted “more quickly and decisively” to achieve better outcomes for their citizens. While there were some outliers, the researchers still conclude that women were generally more proactive with their responses and changes to policy with regards to the pandemic.
Examples of women leading the fight against Covid-19 pandemic exceptionally well – all of which attracted global media attention – are New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.
Similarly, in Qatar, under the leadership and oversight of the Minister of Public Health Dr. Hanan Al-Kuwari, Qatari women have been at the forefront of the national Covid-19 response, with many women holding senior leadership roles working alongside their male colleagues.
Qatar’s critical care infrastructure has proved to be extremely robust and resilient in the fight against Covid-19, and the country boasts one of the lowest recorded death rates globally.
All healthcare workers without exception should be well-protected against the pandemic.
Female healthcare workers are even more vulnerable and need more attention. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, and each intervention would depend on the context, there are some solutions that could prove useful.
These include flexible working and or scheduling, working remotely through telemedicine technology where possible, emergency childcare facilities, and task restructuring in a way that decreases the job demand while increasing job control.
It is also crucial that we include women in the decision making during the pandemic response and permanently even after it ends.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].