Concerns 50 years of progress could be put into reverse unless government intervenes. Citing by The Guardian, the coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating effect on gender equality and could set women back decades, experts have said on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.
In a week during which it was revealed that women are bearing the brunt of extra childcare and housework and are losing jobs in greater numbers than men, campaigners, politicians and work experts said a dearth of female voices at the heart of government also risks putting 50 years of progress into reverse.
“In my view women’s workplace equality will have been set back decades by this crisis unless government intervenes to avert it,” said Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society as quoted by The Guardian.
“We’re looking at the prospect of a two-tier workplace where men go back and women stay home. It’s taken us 20 years to get this far on female participation in the workforce, but it could take only months to unravel.”
Experts spoke to the Guardian about the long-term consequences the pandemic could have in a range of key areas.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found this week that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit, and 14% were more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis. Two sectors expected to be hardest hit in a post-Covid world are hospitality and retail, both of which employ significant numbers of female workers.
“Women started this crisis from a position of economic disadvantage,” said Dr Sara Reis, the head of research and policy at the UK Women’s Budget Group. “We’re worried the impact on women’s earnings and employment prospects will widen existing gender inequalities, not least the gender wage gap.”
A shift to flexible work patterns could create a more equal playing field for some working parents, said Smethers. “There’s no going back, the genie is out of the bottle,” she said.
But with data from the Resolution Foundation showing that only one in 10 lower earners are able to work from home, and 69% of low earners are women, it is not a panacea, said the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady. “Working women have led the fight against coronavirus, but millions of them are stuck in low paid and insecure jobs,” she said. “We need a reckoning on how we value and reward women’s work.”
The coronavirus crisis led the government to exempt companies from having to file gender pay gap data this year, and as a result only half did, according to Business in the Community. “It is hugely disappointing to see so many opted out when the legal requirement was lifted, and a worrying sign of attitudes towards gender equality during the crisis,” said Charlotte Woodworth, a gender equality campaign director.
Analysis of those that did produce data suggests it will take almost 200 years to close the gap, says Dr Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of the Equality Trust. “Undoubtedly women are bearing the brunt of this, as they did in austerity when 86% of cuts fell on women,” she said. “There is a cumulative effect which consistently pushes progress back.”
Some pregnant healthcare workers say the have been pushed into working during the crisis, while others have complained of being laid off. Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, is fearful of a rise in discrimination, as a result of which 54,000 women a year already lose their jobs.
“In times of crisis, employers tend to revert to conventional ways of working. Pregnancy is considered a burden, while mothers are seen as distracted and less committed,” she said. “We are seeing a blatant erosion of employment rights for pregnant women during this crisis, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.’’
Experts also predict a childcare crisis, and the Fawcett Society estimates that 150,000 providers could go out of business.
Given that 97% of the childcare workforce are female, it risks being a double hit, said Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance. “The early years sector was already operating on a hand to mouth basis after years of inadequate government funding,” he said. “The fear is that many providers will close their doors permanently.”
According to new research from the Office for National Statistics, men are doing more than an hour less unpaid labour than women each day, but they are increasing their responsibilities.
That could be transformative, says Suzy Levy, the managing director of The Red Plate consultancy. “For men working form home for the first time, Covid-19 has given them a taste of what life could be like,” she said. “They are actually seeing their children and they are understanding the loss of what they had before.”
Violence against women and girls
Reports suggest that lockdowns across the globe have resulted in a huge increase in violence against women. Refuge, which runs the national domestic abuse helpline in the UK, has had a 10-fold increase in visits to its website in the past two weeks, and two-thirds of survivors responding to a Women’s Aid survey in April said violence had escalated under lockdown.
In response, the government announced £67m to support vulnerable people, including £27m in emergency funding for domestic abuse services. “It’s really welcome and will make a real difference, but it’s not the amount we need,” said Lucy Hadley, the policy lead at Women’s Aid, which estimates the sector requires £393m a year in England alone.
The focus on domestic violence could have positive repercussions, said Sarah Green, the director of the End Violence Against Women coalition. “If it leads to greater understanding that we all have a responsibility for each other that would be a powerful legacy,” she said.
At this week’s liaison committee grilling of Boris Johnson, Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, asked the prime minister what the gender balance should be in the key team tackling the crisis. “That is a question on which I’m not competent enough to pronounce,” he replied. Nokes suggested the figure should be 50%. ***