Gender Inequality: Are Women Bearing The Burden Of The Economic Fallout?
The pandemic has no doubt worsened gender inequality. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak made a statement in January thanking “mums everywhere” for “juggling childcare and work” during lockdown, he was widely pilloried for displaying lazy and sexist attitudes towards women. While he was responding to a question in the House of Commons specifically about working mums, he failed to mention fathers at all in his reply.
His response unknowingly shone a light on an awkward and unsettling truth; women are bearing the burden of the economic fallout of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, the economic gender gap in the UK was already stark. Despite promises from successive Prime Ministers to tackle the issue of gender inequality, the problem on the eve of the crisis was getting more pronounced.
A late 2019 report from the World Economic Forum revealed the UK had dropped from the 15th most equal nation in the world to 21st. This is while most other industrialised western nations improved their position. From political representation and equal pay, to employment levels in fast-growing tech sectors such as computing, engineering and AI. The UK was disappointingly found to have widespread gender inequality.
All the statistical and anecdotal evidence points clearly to the pandemic worsening and entrenching gender inequality. A 2020 report from UN Women suggests COVID-19 could put gender equality back 25 years.
So how has COVID-19 unfairly impacted women in the UK? As we move tentatively into the post-COVID era, what needs to be done to fix the situation permanently?
Gender Inequality: Childcare, Homeschooling & Chores
A study early in the crisis by the London School of Economics stated that women were far more likely to take on household tasks and childcare. Figures from the ONS backed this up, finding that women overwhelmingly took on childcare duties, carrying out two thirds overall. The numbers were even more striking in households with a child under 5. Here, women on average took on 78% more of the childcare than men.
Meanwhile, when mothers were able to work from home, 47% of the time they needed to juggle childcare demands too. Conversely, fathers juggled for only 30% of the time. The situation was the same with general household chores, with a UCL report finding women were doing 64% of housework.
These duties should not automatically fall to women, but they are. Given that one in three working mothers have lost work to cope with the extra duties at home, the inevitable and unfortunate conclusion seems to be that because they are generally less well paid than men, they are the ones to stop working or cut their hours in order to take on household and family responsibilities.
Gender Inequality: Furlough & Unemployment
In June 2020, the University of Exeter found that women were 96% more likely than men to have been made redundant due to COVID-19. Between March-August 2020 a gender gap opened up in furlough – 133,000 more women than men were on the scheme. Meanwhile, 75% of men on furlough had their wages topped up by their employer – only 65% of female workers did.
The initial redundancy levels are indicative of the fact that women are more likely to work in sectors highly vulnerable to COVID restrictions, such as the retail sector. They are also likely to work in less-well paid jobs. Women usually have more junior roles and are far more likely to work part-time than men.
A worrying statistic for working mums emerged in the last quarter of 2020. ONS data showed that while more men were made redundant than women between October and the end of the year, this was true of every age group except 25-34. In that group, double the number of women lost their jobs.
Surely no coincidence that this is the most common age group for women to be pregnant or have young children? A demographic group perhaps under the greatest pressure to juggle work and home duties.
Gender Inequality: Work & Finances
Women’s finances have been hurt far more than men’s during COVID. Last year saw their earnings decline by 12.9%, almost double the reduction for men. The gender pay gap has also increased in 2020. Charity organisation Turn2us estimates this amounts to an extra £62 a month.
The impact of the pandemic has been keenly felt by pregnant mums who had to take unpaid leave to cover childcare. With many of them then finding they had not worked enough hours to qualify for maternity pay.
Since the start of the pandemic, the charity Pregnant then Screwed, has given 32,000 women who are experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work, free legal advice in some form. This is up substantially from the 3000 calls received to their legal advice line in a normal year.
In a Guardian article, Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity, says she believes that companies are taking advantage of the pandemic to remove pregnant women and mothers. A Pregnant Then Screwed survey of 19,950 mothers and pregnant women found that 15% of them had been made redundant, or expected to be.
This puts paid to the huge efforts over recent decades to increase maternal employment. It also could impact the progress of workplace equality for years to come.
Gender Inequality: Governmental Inaction & Bias
The Government have done the equality cause few favours during the crisis. From ill-considered statements from the Chancellor, to the running of crass and offensive “Stay at home” COVID-19 ads that portray women home-schooling, looking after children and cleaning, while the man sits on his backside on the sofa. They have done little to address structural gender inequalities. Indeed, they have only entrenched the issues.
Late March last year the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced they were suspending the legal requirement for businesses with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gaps for 2019. The original deadline was April 4. The immediate effect was the number of businesses who reported halved year on year.
The Governmental explanation given was it was paused to relieve pressure on businesses caused by the virus. However, in effect it means that there will be no consequences for employers who failed to report their figures. It has sent out a terrible message to companies at a time when women are suffering disproportionately from the effects of the pandemic.
The EHRC have now given businesses an extra 6-month grace period, exacerbating an already unacceptable situation. It should never have happened in the first place.
The Government have also shown a skewed male bias with their business relief packages, notably with the Future Fund start-up rescue package. Despite business leaders urging the Government to ensure diversity was kept front of mind to account for the already stark structural inequalities, a study from the British Business Bank showed that while £216m of loans went to companies with all male senior management teams, only £13.7m went to businesses with all female teams.
The Government’s passive attitude to gender equality during the crisis was heavily criticised in a February 2021 report by the House of Commons Women & Equalities Committee. They found Government action through COVID-19 had made existing inequalities worse for mothers, pregnant women, self-employed women, women working in the childcare sector and those claiming benefits.
They also found Governmental plans for economic recovery were again heavily focused on males. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that women are an afterthought. They should be placed at the heart of post-COVID UK strategy.
Are Employers Helping Working Mums?
A January 2021 survey by the TUC indicates they are not. The furlough scheme is a case in point; while it was originally designed to support jobs where demand stopped due to COVID-19, the Government sensibly made it available to workers who couldn’t work due to restrictions on schools and childcare.
However, it was never an employee right and many employers have been very resistant to furlough affected working mums – 78% of employers haven’t offered it – and 68% of furlough requests have been refused.
The net result is that a quarter of mums are using annual leave to handle childcare. 7% have also taken unpaid leave from work. 90% say that their mental health has deteriorated as a result due to ongoing stress and anxiety. It seems that far too many employers are viewing furlough as something people will take advantage of given the chance. They need to look at is as something that is vital in the current circumstances.
The Way Forward
Gender inequality is nothing new, indeed, COVID-19 is making an age-old situation much worse. Government and employers both need to play a leading role in resetting the dial. The structures women work in were designed for men by men, but that thinking belongs firmly in the far-distant past.
Most families now have two breadwinners (or are headed by a single parent). Prior to the pandemic in 2019 there were more women in work than ever before. They are still poorly represented in many sectors and make up far too little of senior management positions across industry.
The EHRC gender pay gap reports must never be suspended again under any circumstances. More should also be done to make company diversity & inclusion practices truly transparent. Those that most successfully move the dial should be rewarded as well as stiffer punishments being available for the resistant.
Proper and effective systems of paid parental leave and flexible working rights can’t come quick enough. In the meantime, furlough for families needing to stay at home should be a right rather than a request. In the short term, the Government need to act on the 20 recommendations made in the recent Women & Equalities Committee report.
Going forward, they must take the opportunity to address the lack of opportunities and put women at the heart of economic recovery and National strategy. No more mealy-mouthed platitudes and guff about “levelling up”. Real, tangible action is needed.
Employers across the country need to play their part, by promoting flexible working practices, ensuring women are promoted according to their talent, not penalising women for having a family and paying them the same as they pay their male counterparts.