Jude Kelly on the lockdown gender gap: 'It's time to ask what we have done to women's lives'

The Women of the World Festival founder tells The Telegraph that coronavirus has revealed the deep-seated inequality between men and women

Jude Kelly: 'This is a great opportunity… Covid basically lifted a lid on systemic injustice in all kinds of ways.'
Jude Kelly: 'This is a great opportunity… Covid basically lifted a lid on systemic injustice in all kinds of ways.' Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

There are certain characters in life who can passionately describe the world’s problems, yet leave you fired up and optimistic. Jude Kelly is one of them. The founder of the decade-old Women of the World Festival (WOW for short) and former artistic director of the Southbank Centre, possesses an infectious energy, which she is currently channelling into an urgent conundrum: that women are the forgotten victims of lockdown. While coronavirus itself has claimed more male lives than female, a growing body of evidence suggests the global crisis it engendered, and governments’ responses to it, will hit women hardest overall. 

“The biggest worry now is, when the tide goes out and you see the debris on the beach, that the disproportionate impact on women is going to be much, much greater than we thought,” says Kelly, from the sunny living room of her Kent seaside home, as we talk over Skype. 

Last week, The Telegraph began to draw attention to this worry, launching its Equality Check series and publishing an open letter expressing concern “that the long-term impact on women is being overlooked in the Government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.” In signing it, Kelly joined more than 50 business leaders and MPs calling on ministers to take concrete action to halt the long-term effect of the pandemic on women.

This weekend, the 66-year-old will address WOW Global 24, billed as the first ever worldwide online festival focused on women and girls, and planned in response to “the separation, deprivation and inequalities brought about and exacerbated by Covid-19.”

The 24-hour summit features a roster of high profile names, including former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, Sir Patrick Stewart and the Duchess of Cornwall, who will talk about domestic abuse. There will be readings from actors including Gillian Anderson and Thandie Newton. 

The Duchess of Cornwall (left) and Gillian Anderson (right) are both involved in the online WOW festival Credit:  Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA

“We have got to, as a society, just ask at this point: what have we done to women’s lives?” says Kelly.

The answers are many and varied: incidents of domestic abuse have spiked during lockdown; the increased burden of chores has been shouldered by women; and their jobs have been more heavily impacted, not only because they are over-represented in hard-hit sectors such as retail and hospitality, but because they have taken on the majority of home-schooling and childcare. It’s been noted, with some alarm, how quickly we have reverted to traditional, 1950s-style gender roles.

This, says Kelly, is partly because so many women already had the lower paid job in their household and more flexibility - “so there was the inbuilt assumption they would be the go-to person on childcare.”

In pre-pandemic times, women were able to lean on nurseries, schools, grandparents and so on. “But as soon as lockdown happened and none of those were available, suddenly women turned to their partners and were saying, ‘I don’t want help, I want you to take 50 per cent of the responsibility’,” Kelly explains. “But even in the most genial relationships, men were saying: ‘Well, I can’t say that to my employer. He won’t sympathise. He’ll ask why my wife can’t do it. My job’s more important than yours because otherwise our mortgage can’t be paid.’ 

“So the imbalances that were baked in were in evidence straight away.”

Kelly has two adult children and two grandchildren with whom she looks forward to being reunited. She acknowledges that she has been lucky not to have suffered the kind of stress so many women have during lockdown. Her partner, the writer Andrew Cracknell, has thrown himself into domestic duties “in a way that was not entirely predictable”, freeing her up for video calls with people around the world who “all want something to happen.”

But if she hasn’t personally struggled beneath a heavy domestic burden, she has witnessed a number of women - who perhaps hadn’t previously appreciated the extent of gender inequality - experience it first hand. Which, she believes, can be turned into a positive.

“This is a great opportunity… Covid basically lifted a lid on systemic injustice in all kinds of ways. I think more women are going to understand it because they’ll suddenly be the victim of it.” 

She’s astute enough to realise, however, that experiencing something does not automatically translate into taking action to stop it happening. “The question is… do they have enough stamina or are they simply scrabbling for survival? How can we mobilise the conversation?”

And she is firm about one thing: “It can’t just be women sorting out women’s stuff.”

Kelly compares the work that needs doing on gender equality to the work currently happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, the themes of which will be discussed at her festival.

“White people are coming forward and saying ‘this is mine, I have to own this, I am part of this story of racialism.’ I don’t see that happening yet [with men in relation to gender inequality],” she adds.

Nor does she seem convinced that Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, almost three quarters of which is male, is best-placed to level the playing field. “I think a lot of people in that Cabinet will not have had the background, the education and the experience to be able to see it in this way - but they will try some sticking plaster [solution],” she says. “I don’t see them thinking this through properly.”

Jude Kelly at the Southbank Centre, where she was artistic director Credit: Clara Molden/The Telegraph

Kelly, a Liverpudlian who has described herself as “from a very modest background” is not one to point out problems without naming solutions. During our conversation, she constantly throws out ideas: a task force on women’s economics; a task force for women, jobs and caring; setting up outdoor schooling; and, crucially, inviting more women to help plan solutions to the crisis. All these things should have been done and haven’t been, she argues. 

After a lifetime working in the performing arts - she was founding director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds between 1990 and 2002, before the Southbank Centre job - it’s no surprise that she also fears for the future of theatre. From July 4, theatres will be allowed to reopen, but will not be allowed to stage live performances. The impact will be far-reaching.

“It isn’t just the West End, it isn’t just the Southbank and National Theatre,” says Kelly. “It’s how do you recover in Bolton, in Lancaster? How do you build back a thing which…[is] a really key part of community identity, and then all the things that go with that, the restaurant, the bars? It’s all part of an ecosystem. So I am worried, yes.”

As with gender equality, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure the survival of Britain’s cultural scene.  “It feels quite tiring, doesn’t it?” she adds.

Indeed, but if anyone is up to the job of keeping these issues at the forefront of mainstream conversation, then it’s surely Kelly. She certainly has the requisite faith that momentum for change is building and can be harnessed.

“Provided we are all courageous and outspoken and don’t get pushed back into our box,” she says, “I think we could make some real progress.”

WOW Global 24 will take place over 24 hours from 27-28 June, starting at 10.30AM in the UK. It is available to watch online for free at thewowfoundation.com