SAGE needs to include a gender advisor

SAGE should include a gender advisor to take account of the long-term gendered impact of Covid, says a new study.

Woman helps daughter with homeschooling at the table


The UK government has largely failed to consider gender in its Covid-19 response, despite the many and varied differential impacts of policy interventions on women and men, according to a new study.

The London School of Economics study, Why we need a gender advisor on SAGE, came about as the researchers, led by Clare Wenham,  sought to understand whether and how gender had been considered by the UK government’s Covid-19 Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).

It is based on an assessment of 73 SAGE meeting minutes and background documents for explicit references to sex and/or gender and for references to gendered issues which aimed to understand whether the gendered implications of policy were considered during Covid discussions.

The researchers found that the acknowledgement of the gendered dynamics of particular issues, such as school closures and female-dominated employment sectors, were largely absent in SAGE meeting minutes and that explicit references to women were largely of a biological (sex) nature, rather than a social (gender) one.

Over time they saw increased references to the gendered impacts of policy in meeting background documents, though they say these references largely reproduced gendered stereotypes and roles rather than actively engaging with the gender issues.

However, they say that not all blame can be put at the feet of SAGE members, who they state did show awareness of equity issues and were predominantly epidemiologists and behavioural scientists likely untrained in gender analysis.

SAGE members are selected based on the government’s framing of the type of emergency at hand and they say the problem is that Covid-19 has been treated by the government as a an epidemiological emergency, rather than a social, political and economic one.

They call for a reframing of emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic so that it is treated in a more holistic way which would enable a redefinition of the scientific advice deemed necessary for SAGE membership and “facilitate the inclusion of gender advisors to mitigate the downstream gendered impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions associated with the government’s Covid-19 response”.

The researchers say: “The lack of gender considerations will undoubtedly have long term effects. Whilst we have already seen more women furloughed than men, and women have lost their jobs 5% points more than men during 2020, these numbers will likely only increase when the furlough scheme ends and widespread unemployment follows. Women who have been furloughed, including those on childcare grounds, have potentially demonstrated to their employers that they are non-essential for business continuity, particularly at a time of economic precarity. Moreover, if schools are not made safe to facilitate teaching, and if the precarious childcare sector fails and more facilities close, this will have long term effects on women’s labour force participation as women continue to absorb this unpaid care work.”

They add: “It is crucial that gender advisory is a key part of emergency preparedness and response expertise presented to governments, and global policy and norms should seek to encourage and perpetuate this. This is particularly important in settings where gender inequality is entrenched and where a gender-blind policy response may significantly reinforce inequalities across society. Simply, we want governments to ask ‘where are the women?’”

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