The impact of COVID-19 on the female workforce in the UK

The impact of COVID-19 on the female workforce in the UK

Whilst the full and lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK workforce is still being understood, data can reveal insights. This article investigates the effect of COVID-19 on the female workforce in the UK, and how workforce gender imbalances can be addressed through workforce planning.

Gender imbalance is prominent in numerous sectors, but progress to address this is being made. In the rail sector, female workers comprised just 8% of the workforce in 2016, when data collection began, but now make up 16%. Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on female workers in the UK economy is essential to ensure efforts to address gender imbalance are not undone.


Changes in the UK workforce by gender since the onset of COVID-19

The International Labour Organisation estimates that global female employment in 2021 was about 13 million lower compared to 2019, whilst male employment will surpass pre-pandemic levels.

However, in the UK, negative changes in employment rates for men have been greater than for women. The change in the employment rate for men between Q4 2019 and Q3 2021 was -2.2%, compared to -0.7% for women. Female workers were significantly more likely to be employed in public sector roles (particularly Health, Education and Local Government), which were largely protected against redundancies or saw increases in employment.

The gender unemployment gap varies when age, ethnicity and occupational class are included in the analysis. For example, women from minority ethnic groups were greatly affected by unemployment. In 2021, female unemployment rates were greater among Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Black/African/Caribbean/Black British workers, compared to their male counterparts. Unemployment rates were also higher for women in precarious work – such as part-time jobs, temporary work and fixed-term, casual and zero-hours contracts.

Specific roles have also experienced a greater change in employment rates for women than national averages. Data from the Office of National Statistics on the number of female workers by Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) code, and how these values have changed between 2017 and 2020, reveals areas of the workforce that have been most impacted.

Nationwide, Managers and Directors in Storage and Warehousing show the largest change with -88.6%. This is followed by two SOC codes relating to the printing trade with 84.1% and 83.3% fewer workers in each.

Roles that can be mapped to the rail sector also show large changes in employment rates for women. Other than Managers and Directors in Storage and Warehousing, Rail Transport Operatives have 52.9% fewer female workers, Rail Travel Assistants 46.1% fewer and Train and Tram Drivers 42.5% fewer.



The data assessed in this research does not surpass 2021. As more studies are undertaken over time, further research can be done by NSAR and added to this initial review to give a more detailed picture of how COVID-19 has impacted female workers across all sectors.


Workforce planning can identify gender imbalances and make plans for their reversal

It is vital that we stay focused on addressing workforce gender imbalances as we continue pandemic recovery and react to an unstable economic environment. Workforce planning provides businesses with knowledge that can help decrease gender imbalances in staff.

Workforce planning uses data analysis and forecasting to help businesses better understand their current workforce and determine their future needs. As part of this, businesses can discover the gender balance of their workforce and make plans to address any gaps.

For example, NSAR’s Skills Intelligence Model (SIM) can produce a unique overview of a business’s workforce to enable effective decision-making on future skills and workforce planning. The SIM identifies skills gaps in a business’s workforce and determines resourcing and skills requirements for the future. This data can be used to create action plans to recruit and train the staff that the business needs to deliver its ambitions. A greater gender balance in staff can be easily built into this model.


A diverse workforce fosters engagement, retention and innovation

Building a diverse and inclusive workforce helps employees feel valued by and connected to their organisation. This creates engaged employees willing to go the extra mile and is linked to greater employee retention. A diverse workforce also fosters a range of unique perspectives and allows these voices equal opportunity – an ideal environment for innovation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on women’s employment rates in various roles and types of work, as well as for particular demographics of women. By retaining focus on addressing workforce gender imbalances, we can correct the effect of the pandemic and continue the effort to create a diverse and inclusive workforce that creates equal opportunity and fosters innovation.

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