International Women’s Day: Inequality and Covid-19

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Woman working from home with baby © Photo by Standsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash

As Professor Jo Warin highlighted last year, the Covid-19 lockdown has acted as a magnifying glass on social inequalities in the UK. One of its effects seems to be a magnifying of the unequal, gendered division of domestic labour. Many women, have been balancing work with childcare and other caring responsibilities while schools and nurseries were shut. Furthermore, inherent biases in the design of the furlough scheme are inadvertently perpetuating gender inequality. According to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the scheme incentivises couples to have one parent give up work completely while the other works their regular hours. As pointed out in this research, mothers are more likely to be furloughed full-time while fathers continue to work. While the longer-term effects of this are yet to be seen, this could impact on women’s earnings and career progression and in the future. 

Women’s unequal position in the workplace has also been emphasised by the pandemic. Analysis of the latest Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme data shows that over time, women have consistently been furloughed at higher rates than men. As of the 31st January 2021, 145,500 more women were furloughed than men. Women are also the majority of those working in sectors – retail and hospitality – that have been most severely affected by successive lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions.

Our recent report, No Returns, examined the nature of retail worker insecurity in the context of Covid-19. We found that the majority of job losses in the sector have been among women employees, and women over the age of 50 currently make up 38% of retail roles. At the same time, the accelerated growth of online retail has led to an upturn in new retail-related roles being created by the likes of Amazon in warehouses, distribution centres and delivery networks due to increased customer demands, but evidence suggests this isn’t going to help many women who lose their current job in the sector. While women are over-represented in traditional retail roles, they are under-represented in the roles that are growing through the shift to online. There could be multiple factors driving this, including the often-unpredictable hours and location of these new jobs away from towns or city centres. To date these kinds of roles have tended to be low paid, offer little or no opportunities for progression and with temporary contracts or very few hours.

Job losses are expected when the furlough scheme ends, with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting a peak unemployment rate of 11% by the first quarter of 2022. With some of the worst affected sectors likely to be those where women are currently over-represented, further investment in skills and training will be vital in tackling gender inequality in the labour market. Restart, the Government’s support programme for the long-term unemployed will commence in June, but with concerns that the number of eligible claimants will outstrip provider capacity, further investment will likely be needed. Additionally, eligibility for training under the Lifetime Skills Guarantee should be broadened to adults who already have A-level and equivalent qualifications but work in lower skilled occupations, or in sectors that have been particularly affected by the pandemic, as we called for in Learning to Level Up.

Childcare is a vital form of infrastructure, enabling parents to enter or stay in employment. A new survey from Pregnant then Screwed found that 46% of mothers being made redundant during the Covid-19 pandemic say that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. Urgent action is required to overhaul the childcare system, and this should start with adequate funding for providers. Additionally, more ambitious legislation on flexible working would benefit many women in the workplace, particularly parents and those with caring responsibilities. Currently, workers have the right to request this after 24 weeks in post, but offering flexibility at point of hire, unless it is not possible due to the nature of the role, should be seriously considered. 

More comprehensive support for workers through periods of sickness should also be prioritised. The UK’s Statutory Sick Pay is currently just £95.85 per week, which is significantly below the National Minimum Wage. Currently, 15.5% of women and 10.6% of men in employment do not earn enough to qualify for Statutory Sick Pay. The pandemic has shown that adequate sick pay is crucial, not only in terms of public health, but also in ensuring that some of the most insecure workers are not disproportionately impacted by having to isolate.

Going forward, it is vital that women are prioritised in the economic recovery, and the upcoming Employment Bill is an opportunity for government to consider how best to tackle the inequalities within our economy and society that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated.  


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