As New Zealand opens up its trans-Tasman bubble, there is excitement and relief, but also understandable caution in the face of the ongoing uncertainty that the worldwide spread of COVID-19 has caused. We all continue to be affected in diverse ways; what is research showing about some of the particular issues for women? 

The increasing gender pay gap in New Zealand is an ongoing, major cause for concern. During 2018-2019, the gender pay gap increased from 9.2% to 9.3%. According to Ava Wardecki, writing for Global Women Champions for Change, the gap was increasing post lockdown level 4 in 2020, and post-lockdown evidence from Statistics NZ reported a gender pay gap of 9.5%. For women raising families and working full time, or raising a family alone, this financial pay gap is likely to have effects on the overall stress that women experience in their daily lives. The hardest hit employment sectors within COVID-affected New Zealand were sales and hospitality, both of which comprise a mainly female workforce (60% and 70% respectively). Furthermore, with tourism, domestic care and cleaning also taking a hit during lockdown and ongoing border closure, many women are being pushed to the forefront of loss of income and redundancy. 

Recent research by Masselot and Hayes (2020) from the University of Canterbury explores gender inequality and how COVID-19 has exacerbated both social and economic gender inequality with a reduction in financial security for female workers and a rise in violence both within and outside of homes. There are concerns that Pasifika and Māori women are dealing with these consequences more than others, given pre-existing social inequalities. This article highlights that work completed by women is often undervalued economically. Furthermore, violence towards women, found both at work and at home, was intensified. For example, female supermarket workers faced increased abuse from anxious and angry shoppers and healthcare workers were abused by people seeking COVID-19 tests during the peaks of lockdowns and outbreaks. New Zealand’s high rates of intimate partner violence and family harm made many women extremely unsafe when locked down at home.

In order to address this, the University of Canterbury researchers argue that a renewed way of thinking of the value that women provide for the workforce is needed. They suggest that a more gendered approach should be taken, where companies consider whether families are supported in terms of childcare, whether policy targets equal benefits for both men and women, and how the risks of violence, undervalued work and financial inequality are taken seriously and addressed.

What about the mental health effects of the pandemic on women?

The impact of COVID-19 on the gender pay gap and gender inequality may also raise concerns about wellbeing and mental health for women in New Zealand, an area that has yet to be thoroughly researched. However, an article published in the Journal of Wellbeing, reported on research with a working sample from Canada that showed that marginalised workers, such as women, migrants and those with financial difficulties, reported lower job security in the context of COVID-19, which was in turn related to lower levels of wellbeing. It is clear that the financial impact and uncertainty around job security, as a consequence of the pandemic – and particularly if more outbreaks occur as New Zealand opens up its borders – could have a range of negative effects on wellbeing. 

Recent research on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 is mixed, but highlights that some individuals are likely to be more affected by world pandemics than others, especially if they previously had a history of negative mental health. Leading health specialists stated in a recent British Medical Journal that, “the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact”. They suggest that extensive quarantine can be related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and insomnia and that global economic downturns also can see a long-lasting decline in mental health.

Steven Taylor, author of the Psychology of Pandemics argues that, in the aftermath of a pandemic, those who previously suffered from mental health issues might go on to see long-lasting effects, with perhaps 10% to 15% of individuals not returning to “normal”. On average, New Zealand women report higher rates of some mental health issues than do men, such as some forms of anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms (Ministry of Health, New Zealand), which could therefore indicate a higher risk of long-lasting pandemic after-effects—although see also our recent research on some of the ways women may have learned to buffer such risks. In a recent summary of research in the Unknown Questions series, Dr Taylor also argues there is evidence of the ability to “bounce back” and build resilience to stress (including in New Zealand’s return to almost “normal” social life), showing it is hard to predict possible long-term mental health effects.

In New Zealand, we have our COVID-19 elimination strategy, our (mostly) Level 1 lifestyle and our carefully opening trans-Tasman “bubble”. Our response is world-leading. Let’s ensure that our actions against gender inequality, and against the financial, violence and mental health risks for women associated with COVID-19 – all of which predated the pandemic – can also lead the world.