As New Zealand's strictest level of lockdown comes to an end, figures reveal the workers who bore the heaviest burden on the frontline were more likely to be women. Kirsty Johnston reports.
One day during the long weeks of coronavirus lockdown, Wellington nurse Katrina Hopkinson stopped mid-shift to hold a patient's hand. He was a teenager, recovering from surgery, and he was very scared.
Hopkinson sat at the boy's beside for a while, reassuring him that he was safe. Eventually he opened his eyes and said: "You're a mum aren't you?" and she knew she could move on.
Hand-holding is not the kind of work nurses routinely have time for these days. But with visitors banned from hospitals during the pandemic, health workers around the country have been left to take on extra duties, including those usually fulfilled by family.
"It's a scary time for patients," Hopkinson says. "So giving of yourself is important, but it's also hard when you're stressed and burnt out. And I don't feel like that burden of responsibility has been totally recognised."
Workers like Hopkinson have been at the forefront of New Zealand's fight against Covid 19.
Data shows up to 680,000 people work in essential industries, those allowed to carry on during level 4. A third of those workers - 250,000 people - had public-facing jobs.
And of those, more than two in three were women.
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Essential worker left in tears after being pulled over for speeding
• Covid-19 coronavirus: Government throws Covid-19 affected essential workers a lifeline
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Essential workers come together to help elderly man access food
• Dr Mike Bedford: Restrict childcare to essential workers' children first
Data provided by Statistics New Zealand and analysed by the Herald shows 80 per cent of hospital workers were women. They made up 55 per cent of supermarket staff. Of residential rest home carers, and community support workers, the majority were women.
Pharmacists, midwives, paramedics, blood bank staffers - also all more likely to be women. And particularly the care sector, more likely to have an overrepresentation of Māori, Asian or Pasifika women.
They work in jobs long undervalued and underpaid, as recognised in recent pay equity claims. Caring, tending, showering, birthing, cleaning - considered women's work and treated in the economy as such - but revealed in this crisis as crucial to society's function.
"Covid-19 has peeled back the curtain," says public policy analyst Jess Berenston Shaw. "It shows caring work is real work in the economy and that looking after children and the sick and the elderly enables everything else to happen, it's foundational."
Of course, many men were on the frontline, too - some in supermarkets or petrol stations, and many more in emergency services, where men make up 70 per cent of the force.
But their numbers paled in comparison to the numbers in healthcare roles - 160,000 - of which 85 per cent -135,000 workers - were women.
"Healthcare workers are the most affected by this whole crisis," says organiser Kirsty McCully, from the union E Tu. "They get up close and personal with people while delivering care. All while worried about taking the virus home, and worried about affecting clients as well."
With strict lockdown lifting, those women workers are now left wondering how their contribution will be remembered when the crisis has calmed.
Legal action has forced the Government to address pay discrimination. The first pay equity settlement was in residential and community support work in 2017. Pay rates rose from the minimum wage of $15.75 per hour moved to at least $19 per hour. Mental health and addiction was next. Nursing is still working to settle its claim.
But pay rates are only part of the problem. Research from AUT Professor of Economics Gail Pacheco and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment shows not only are women twice as likely to be in low-paid work as men, they're also much more likely to be working part-time. While 54 per cent of women worked part time, only 32 per cent of men did the same.
For many women, that's because of childcare commitments - what Kiwibank economist Mary Jo Vergara refers to as the "second shift". Women still spend twice the time that men spend on childcare each day, she said. Therefore often part-time work was the only option.
"The problem: part-time employment is generally low-paid, only available in a limited number of occupations, and career-limiting," Vergara wrote. "The consequence: maintained financial dependence on their partner and/or the government."
McCully said the troubles with precarious work had been but one issue brought to the fore during the Covid-19 crisis. Many staff had lost some hours, as clients chose not to have the in-home service, replacing carers with family instead. One woman the Herald spoke to had seen her wage cut from $450 to $300 a week.
It also highlighted how difficult it is for healthcare workers to walk away when there are patients in need. Staff across healthcare sectors told the Herald of feeling powerless when arguing for PPE, like they weren't being heard. They felt concerned they didn't have enough, or the right equipment, or that it wouldn't work. But despite their fear, they continued to go to work.
Sisi Palu, a home support worker in Māngere, said for her, there was never a choice. Many of her clients live alone, and they don't have anyone else.
"I need to do my job. It's very hard, but I want to help the old people," she says. "I am scared about the virus. Of taking it home to my family. But us carers, we care about our clients. We feel love for them."
As the women went out to work, often it was their husbands who stayed home. Phillipa Mayers, 58, a checkout manager at New World in Auckland's Mt Roskill, said she had been doing long hours, meaning her husband - considered vulnerable because he'd had cancer - had to pick up the slack in terms of housework.
"He's done the dusting and polishing and vacuuming. And he says, "oh you do all that and work 40 hours a week!' It's put it into perspective," Mayers says. "He really was a great support for me."
Some researchers have asked if Covid-19 might generate a shift in gender roles. Just as WWII put more women in the workforce, research published by the CEPR policy portal said the pandemic was spurring more men into caretaker positions.
It said there were two opposing forces which might act to "promote equality" in the labour market.
"First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Second, there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for child care, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in house work and child care."
However, for that to happen, Berentson Shaw says there will need to be deliberate action taken.
"When people came back from the war there were a lot of social policies made to recognise the service they'd given - like the provision of farmland, and social housing," she said. "To respond in kind we first need to ask, who gave service here? Who did the work? Who lost their job? Who has suppressed wages? And it's women."
Minister for Women Julie Ann Genter believed the women deserved more than a thank you. "They should be paid fairly," she said. Fixing pay equity was a priority she said, and she was pushing for greater pay transparency.
Hopkison, the nurse, said it needed to go further than that.
"It's very interesting that the Government has been able to provide childcare and free parking and transport, when those are things we've been pushing towards for years," she said. "And those things would make a difference every day of the week to how we staff hospitals and attract people, not just in a crisis."
She felt now was a good time to pause for a reflection and decide what a "new normal" could look like, particularly in terms of female-dominated professions.
"You know, someone said to me, the public love it when we martyr ourselves but we'd just like to be appreciated all the time."
Over and over, women in healthcare roles told the Herald they didn't feel valued by society at large.
There were acts of kindness towards them during the crisis - members of the public gifting food, or thanking them on Facebook - but there were also deep misunderstandings. One support worker who didn't want to be named told how she'd been shopping for a client, but refused priority entry to a supermarket despite her paperwork and badge.
"The security guard said, 'we are only interested in doctors and nurses,'" she said. "I called the store afterwards but they didn't care, they just said support workers weren't considered essential in their policy."
It was recognised that attitudes as well as policies needed to shift. And part of that attitude change would include reassuring men that taking on caring work would not be seen as weak, or second-best, or worthless.
"There are prohibitive stereotypes on both sides," wrote Kiwibank's Vergara. "For women, it's expected. For men, it's often frowned upon to take on a caregiver role, and not be the breadwinner."
Brenda, a home care worker in Waikato, said with her husband expected to lose his job this week, she would now be the family's main earner.
"It's a worry. I know I don't earn enough to support our family," she said. "But I am hopeful that we might get more recognition out of this. It would be good if our job was deemed important all the time and not just in a pandemic."
"We are putting our lives and families lives at risk, by going to work for the elderly. I've seen on Facebook, people saying it's us in low-paid jobs running the economy, not the CEO on the huge pay packet. That shouldn't be forgotten."