The great leveller? How Covid-19 responses could widen gender inequality in the UK

Commentary

The coronavirus pandemic – just like society – runs along fault lines of gender, race, class and other inequalities. With women over-represented in vulnerable frontline jobs, there are fears that technologies proposed to tackle the pandemic could inflict harms that differ based on gender.

Among the many stumbles by the UK government in response to the pandemic were early instances of leaders characterizing the virus as the ‘great leveller,’ as if it affects all members of society alike. Yet doctors and nurses are working without proper protective equipment, and Black and Asian individuals are significantly more likely to die from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Unlike much of society’s elite, cleaners, servers and other – predominantly female – frontline workers have not had the luxury of doing their jobs from home.

The pandemic has shone a light on many deep and longstanding divides in British society. These inequalities mean various groups are experiencing the pandemic differently. For women, the restrictions imposed during confinement, the working conditions of those in critical jobs, and even the technologies proposed to help, can all be sources of disproportionate harm. At the same time, as the UK reopens its economy, opportunities might arise to challenge and dismantle the pre-existing structures of discrimination that are embedded in both technology and society.

Women make up almost 1.1 million of the UK’s health, therapy and nursing professionals. The number of men doing the same jobs is less than a third of that. In caring and service jobs, the almost 2.4 million women outnumber men by more than 400 percent. And half a million women in the UK perform “elementary cleaning” roles (the kind recently labelled by the Conservative government as “unskilled”), compared with 230,000 men. In contrast, the 2.3 million men in senior management roles overshadow the 1.3 million women in equivalent positions.

In other words, whilst women continue to be disproportionately under-represented in white-collar and senior roles, they are over-represented in frontline health, service and care roles, and have therefore contracted the virus at much higher rates than men. These jobs are chronically underpaid and undervalued in the UK, and have become the most exposed in the current public-health crisis. And like unpaid domestic care work, which around the world is disproportionately carried out by women, this work also is among the most essential to keep society functioning.

Digital discrimination: Why tech makes Covid-19 worse for women

Not only are women more exposed to the virus because of their over-representation in frontline work, they also are more at risk of rights violations as governments and companies mobilise technologies to tackle the virus. There have been attempts around the world to innovate a way out of the crisis – from hackathons in Germany to immunity apps in Greece. Technology has lured those in power into thinking that there is a digital silver bullet to Covid-19 problems.

Data-protection experts have been quick to point out the significant risks to privacy, data protection and other fundamental rights, not to mention the lack of strong evidence that these tools are even effective.

This has not stopped authorities trying to equip public spaces and workplaces with temperature-scanning surveillance technologies. This will, by definition, restrict who can and cannot work, travel or shop. London’s Heathrow is one of many airports to screen passengers’ temperatures before flights. In Belgium, the European Parliament has imposed mandatory temperature checks for staff entering the premises, with other workplaces around the world pursuing similar measures. The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, emphasises that temperature does not establish Covid-19 status.

Furthermore, temperature-screening devices may unjustifiably restrict women’s freedoms based on physiological factors. Studies have shown that women’s body temperatures can increase between 0.3 and 0.7°C during their menstrual cycle. With normal body temperature ‘approximately 37°C’ and a fever ‘37.8°C or higher’, a fluctuation of this amount is significant.

This makes questions about the accuracy and calibration of temperature-scanning devices very important. Too sensitive, and they may restrict people for arbitrary reasons, such as menstruation. Not sensitive enough, and they won’t achieve their aim of detecting elevated temperatures.

Another type of tool governments are exploring to control people’s movements – in this case, re-entry into society -- are highly problematic immunity apps. These are intended to function like immigration documents by showing who has previously had the virus. 

Because women are over-represented in jobs that cannot be performed remotely, they may be more affected by restrictions imposed as a result of technology such as those immunity apps. Controlling access to work based on unproven technologies, whether through temperature readings or purported ‘immunity’ apps, can push already vulnerable people into even more precarious situations.

Gender-biased surveillance and abuse of tracking data

These are complex questions, which the surveillance-technology companies that are fervently selling their wares as pandemic-busters are failing to ask. Far from being neutral, the biases and inequalities of society are unconsciously designed into technology. Researchers Buolamwini, Gebru and Raji, best known for their landmark ‘Gender Shades’ study, have already shown that facial recognition technology is made in a way that makes it less able to detect the faces of women, especially women of colour. Time and again, technology is designed for a presumed neutral human; that is to say, it is designed for men.

Privacy violations related to coronavirus technology may also have a different impact based on gender. Throughout the pandemic, domestic violence against women and girls in the UK has been on the rise. Inside and outside the home, women face disproportionate levels of violence, stalking and harassment.

In 2019, growing awareness of so-called ‘digital strip searches’ highlighted the intersection of data, surveillance and gender, when UK police were criticised for demanding that female rape victims hand over the full contents of their mobile phones for analysis. Those who refused found that police had dropped their cases, and those who submitted their data discovered it had been kept beyond lawful limits. 

Now, with data-hungry apps tracking people’s locations, journeys and contacts as part of many strategies to reopen economies, the public must be alert to the fact that women’s personal data is especially vulnerable. Most governments have struggled with the question of whether to decentralise their tracing apps, meaning that everyone’s personal data would remain on their own device, or to use a centralised database. The UK government has flip-flopped between options, and in June released a statement that its app will be “based on” the decentralised solution developed by Google and Apple.

The government’s statement fails to explain if and how it will process, store or protect people’s data. It remains crucial before the deployment of any app that the protection of personal data – whether from state surveillance, outside hacking, or the monetisation of that data by the companies holding it – is front and centre. Because contact-tracing data can be incredibly revealing, it is critical that the additional vulnerabilities of women’s personal data are a key consideration, not an afterthought.

In New Zealand, for example, a woman was repeatedly harassed by a restaurant server who had taken her number purportedly for Covid-19 contact tracing. There has been other evidence in the past of women’s data being misused by police officers, and the plethora of data being collected in the pandemic response only exacerbates these risks.

Things could get better: changing gender roles during the pandemic

As technology has emerged to ‘save’ Britons from Covid-19, it is becoming clearer that these ‘solutions’ may, in fact, create an even greater barrier to women enjoying their rights and freedoms. Yet the pandemic has also revealed that the way that the world works right now is not the only way.  Forced changes, such as increased teleworking or the more equal distribution of childcare duties in heterosexual couples, show that stereotypical gender roles and responsibilities are neither natural nor inevitable. And public resistance to potentially privacy-invasive technologies has shown that many people care deeply about the ways in which tech encodes and amplifies discrimination.

Governments must look at underlying inequalities in their plans to rebuild communities. As every sector of society undergoes structural recovery, so too is there a rare opportunity to reshape in favour of positive, more egalitarian policies and practices.

Ultimately, the only sustainable solution to the coronavirus crisis will be actions that also address the underlying societal ills that caused it to hit the UK so hard in the first place: injustice, discrimination and inequality.