The female frontline: why Covid-19 is a feminist issue
Illustration: Khadijah Ali<

Michelle, Janine, Kim, Stacey, and Tina: these are just some of the names my sister can recall when she comes back from her weekly blood transfusions. After being diagnosed with a rare blood disease, she’s been spending a lot of time in hospital and every week she comes home with anecdotes of her scouse nurses, impressions of their raspy high voices and whatever gossip they’re circulating daily on the ward. Between blood tests, PFTs, CAT scans and visiting social workers, she walks through each ward clad in a mask and gloves, reeking of antibacterial gel, and she explains to me that in almost every face she passes, there is a common theme: they’re female. 

My sister is right. 

Across the UK, the majority of  hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities are staffed by women, with NHS Digital reporting that ¾ of current staff are female. This is a trend worldwide, supported by the World Health Organisation which states that 70% of healthcare workers globally are female.  These women are our ‘key workers’, but they haven’t been recognised as such. 

After all, It was just last week that conservative MP Helen Whately, suggested that student nurses “provide no real service”. It was the Conservative government, who since 2010, have consistently underfunded NHS departments, decreasing working standards and wages. It was the Conservative government who increased surcharges to migrant workers to work in the UK , and in the NHS . The government’s new “points based immigration policy” discriminates against those female key workers, requiring immigrants to earn over £26,000 a year, amongst other factors, to gain enough points to have residency in the UK. Jobs in the NHS can start at £17,000 a year, mostly in lower ranking positions which are highly concentrated with women, and importantly migrant women. 

The undervaluing of female workers in the NHS has led to stagnating wages for healthcare workers, decreasing staff numbers and poorer work environments.

But, why have we undervalued healthcare workers?

It is a complex issue; between profits, privatisation and the value of our public services, it is difficult to understand why workers, previous to these unprecedented times, have been undervalued in society. From its inception in 1945, the NHS has been threatened by new post war politics. As memory of the war faded, so did political support, with successive governments beginning to favour private competitors and prioritising the accessibility of the welfare state less and less. 

It must be noted however, that my neighbours with their pots and pans, clapping for our heroes, are not politicians, some weren’t even alive when these policies began. Yet, the same issue persists. Whilst politics impacts our values and priorities, this is an issue beyond policy. Culturally, we accept that healthcare is a profession for women, needing innate female traits, rather than a profession that requires the skilled labour that it does. 

Healthcare is a profession that has become feminised as an industry. Whether it is the nurses’ outfits we dress our children in or depictions throughout the media and history,  gender socialisation and stereotypes have led us to believe that to be caring, attentive and patient, is somehow, inherently a female trait. With this idea that traits can be innate, and not learnt, revised and worked, labour is fundamentally undervalued in healthcare and is seen as natural women’s work. A report by the Royal College of Nursing says that the perception even today is the  “old fashioned view that caring for others is a feminine characteristic.”  

As we move forward, in Boris Johnson’s own words, to build back better”, we must understand that healthcare, at every level, is an industry that is high pressure, technical and difficult, these skills are not innate and we cannot, beyond every rainbow and mural, treat them as if they are. 

Whilst I’ve focused on healthcare, similar trends exist in retail and education. These are professions that have been an integral part of our pandemic response and have similar prejudices and tropes attached to the women that work in them. This article focuses on industry. and again, not on the millions of women projected to take household work and economic burdens through this period.

When this ends, we mustn’t forget who it was that made you tea as you waited for news about your treatment, or wheeled you from ward to ward, and told you everything would be okay when the world turned upside down. I’m sure we will be told it was Boris Johnson who looked after us, but to me, it’s  Michelle, Janine, Kim, Tina, Stacey and the countless others whose names my sister couldn’t quite remember.