Women make up just 15% of Covid advisory groups worldwide

a group of people sitting at a table: Health minister Chris Hipkins and Dr Ashley Bloomfield at the health select committee (Robert Kitchin - Pool/Getty Images)

© The Spinoff
Health minister Chris Hipkins and Dr Ashley Bloomfield at the health select committee (Robert Kitchin – Pool/Getty Images)

A new study published in the journal BMJ Global Health says that men make up more than 85% of Covid-19 decision-making and advisory boards.

Authors of an observational study into the gender gap on Covid-19 advisory boards have called the male dominance they found the result of a “disturbingly accepted pattern”. Men make up 85% of decision-making and advisory boards and helm 81% of them, despite the fact women have been able to attain a tertiary education in most countries for over a century.

The study, titled “Symptoms of a broken system: the gender gaps in Covid-19 decision-making”, is fronted by Cambridge epidemiologist Kim Robin van Daalen but comprises a team of 15 researchers from the UK, Europe, and North America. It analysed decision-making groups – boards, committees, task forces and similar – from 87 different countries and found only 3.5% of them had gender parity. New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee, fronted by Simon Bridges, fit this pattern: seven of the 11 committee members were men.

While the study acknowledges that Covid-19 tends to affect men more severely, experience here in New Zealand indicates women often bear economic brunt of the virus, and middle aged women appear to be the demographic most likely to report being a Covid-19 “long-hauler”. The study states women are more likely to suffer socially and economically and experience increased risk of domestic and sexual violence during lockdowns.

To get the information for the study, Van Daalen and her fellow researchers collected information up to June 2020 via crowdsourcing, conducted targeted searches of “grey literature” (eg unpublished statements), and soliciting information from the World Health Organisation and national governments. They faced difficulties in obtaining the information, and warn against using the justification of “quick action” to get around requests for transparency. “‘Closed-door governance’ should be replaced by open and transparent communication and decision-making as the norm,” says the study.

Van Daalen and her co-authors say the effects of the gender imbalance on these boards could affect the decisions they made. “Decision-making bodies which are neither inclusive nor diverse can easily overlook the reality that Covid-19 acts as a multiplier of pre-existing gender-based inequities,” says the study. It points out many governments’ response measures didn’t take into account women’s higher levels of income loss and expanded family care responsibilities.

The study says ignorance of this can exacerbate pre-existed societal issues, such as poverty, hunger, and domestic violence. It draws on reports from countries with experience of the Ebola and Zika pandemics, which showed increases in maternal mortality, unwanted pregnancies, and unsafe abortions.

Women make up 70% of the global health workforce but, as the study points out, they hold only 25% of senior decision-making roles. The study cites an article on women in power that suggests countries with women in leadership positions had a death rate from Covid-19 six times lower than countries with men in power. It’s important to note this particular study has not yet been reviewed.

However, as van Daalen et al explain, countries who are prepared to elect women as leaders are more likely to have the values that would see them selected for advisory boards and task forces.

The study calls for a “new default” of governance make-up. “This should include truly representative membership of international and national task forces, spanning gender, ethnicity, race, culture, geography and disability,” it says.

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