COVID-19 recovery must deliver for those furthest behind and ignored. The only answer is intersectional policymaking and system change

Positive signs of policy inclusiveness in the early stages of the pandemic are much less evident in the UK’s post-COVID recovery plans. We must adopt an approach to policymaking that does not ignore those who are most critical to the UK’s long-term wellbeing

Talat Yaqoob

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequality. For many of us who have been campaigning on, and researching, equalities issues, this comes as no surprise. However, the national conversation in the first six months of the pandemic seemed to shine a light on the realities of inequality like never before – so much so that we saw financial interventions by the UK Government that, pre-pandemic, would never have even made it onto the floor of the Westminster chamber, or indeed the chambers of the devolved nations.

Women, and in particular Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women, have faced the sharpest consequences of COVID19; through job losses, unpaid care work, risk of illness and risk to life. However, 16 months on, Government intervention and rhetoric have returned to the status quo at considerable speed. Despite the gendered impact having been made clear by several feminist and equalities organisations, the UK Government’s ‘Plan for Growth’ refers to women and gender once; there is no gendered analysis, and the plan is very likely to favour the prospects of men.

The focus is on infrastructure, construction, technology, science, engineering and artificial intelligence – all sectors where men are the majority of employees, certainly the majority of leaders, and there are eye-watering pay gaps, and all without reference to occupational segregation or the needed increase in investment in women’s participation routes into these sectors.

A missed opportunity

In devolved parliaments, there has been a somewhat more nuanced approach. In Scotland, the endorsement of the need for a ‘wellbeing economy’ by the First Minister and the inclusion of a national care service in the governing party’s manifesto are all positive indicators. However, on delivery of a fairer recovery this is again a missed opportunity: for example, oversight for the new advisory group on a 10-year post-COVID economic strategy does not include any expertise on equalities-driven and feminist economics.

Labour market sectors such as infrastructure, technology, science and engineering are, of course, critical to our economy – but no more important than the economic contribution (and more) made by health and social care. Again, these arguments are well-versed: the adult social care sector is estimated to be worth £46.2 billion to the UK economy and unpaid carers contribute £36 billion to Scotland alone. But where is their share of the prioritisation, the political space and the investment? These sectors are built and held together by women; in a patriarchal society, these sectors are undervalued and overlooked.

From the experiences of the pandemic (so far), we have talked about and applauded the phenomenal work of our frontline and care workers, but when it comes to delivering the economic transformation needed to build and better our social care sector, the response is all too quiet; this is despite the steps to a care economy having been well-evidenced by the Women’s Budget Group and others.

Government priorities must be based on evidence, and the evidence illustrates that key sectors where women, and in particular Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women, are disproportionately employed, are some of the most critical for the wellbeing of the UK and our ability to survive a future pandemic – so they must be prioritised in any COVID-19 recovery strategy.

How to take an intersectional approach

In order to create a post-pandemic society that can truly recover and be resilient, it must also be fair. To deliver this, any and all recovery plans must take an intersectional approach; understanding the compounding and multiple discriminations being faced by individuals or groups at any one time, and how these layers of discrimination, built into the fabric of our society, push people even further back.

Let’s take a moment to consider the impact of COVID-19 on women of colour and women from ethnic minority backgrounds. We know women are more likely to have lost income as a consequence of COVID-19, and we know higher numbers of women are working in health and social care, putting themselves at risk to save our lives. We also know the same is true for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic employees of the NHS, who are employed in disproportionately high numbers – predominantly in lower paid roles.

If we analyse this information in siloes, we erase the lived reality of women of colour/women from BAME backgrounds by producing generic responses that work for women as a homogenous group, or for BAME communities as a homogenous group (which is already problematic, given the vast difference between different ethnic groups within this categorisation). As a consequence, we risk worsening the outcomes for women from BAME backgrounds or women of colour. Taking an intersectional approach is a way to mitigate this risk and see the overlapping inequalities in our policymaking.

Intersectionality is not a synonym for diversity

We know from ONS (England) data that women of Black Caribbean ethnic background had the highest rates of death involving COVID-19, two times higher than women of White ethnic background. We therefore need to respond through intersectional policymaking and system change.

However, as the term ‘intersectionality’ has gained traction across the policymaking landscape, it has become misrepresented and often diluted. Intersectionality is not a synonym for diversity, nor is it a ‘catch-all approach’ to discuss all protected characteristics at once and deliver ‘sameness’. Rather, it is an analytical tool – coined by the renowned academic and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw – which was first developed to put the spotlight on Black women’s lives, and evidence the specifics of the overlapping and exacerbating effects of racism and sexism. As such, any use of it must respect its origins and deliver better outcomes for Black women.

Our COVID-19 recovery can and must be intersectional; ensuring that evidence gathered is asking the right questions, is engaging the too-often ignored, and is analysed beyond artificial siloes – building research not for, but with, the women at the intersections where inequalities meet each other and are amplified, and proposing recommendations that do not assume women are a homogenous group, which inevitably only advantages those who were already benefiting from the status quo.

Instead, we need a COVID-19 recovery which delivers for those who are furthest behind and ignored, producing change which tackles the compounding effects of racism, sexism and more.

Talat Yaqoob FRSE is an independent consultant and campaigner working across equalities issues and public participation in policymaking, with a focus on women’s equality, race equality and intersectional analysis of policy.