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Is the government doing enough to support women during the pandemic?

Women have been disproportionately impacted economically by the Covid-19 crisis due to the division of childcare and being overrepresented in shutdown sectors | Alamy

10 min read

Not only have women taken on the brunt of caring responsibilities in the pandemic, they are also more likely to work in shutdown sectors. With little targeted support, Georgina Bailey reports on whether the government is doing enough for gender equality under Liz Truss’ new approach

Before the pandemic, single mum Rebecca was working two jobs – one in a cafe and one as a volunteer coordinator for a charity – while claiming universal credit.

“We were still struggling... But we were doing the best we could,” she remembers. “And then March 2020 hit, and the pandemic, it’s been really difficult.” 

In the first lockdown, she was furloughed from her cafe job but continued working for the charity from home, while trying to home-school her eight-year-old daughter. “In the first lockdown, I kind of just gave up on school, because I had to do work to feed us. Which made me feel really terrible as a mother... But we just couldn’t balance the two things.” In September, after the cafe scaled back to cut costs, Rebecca left that job. By January, the mental toll of lockdown, combined with home-schooling and working had become too much. Rebecca was signed off sick with stress, and then quit her coordinator job. “You just can’t do it. I can’t do two different things that both need my full-time attention.”

For women like Rebecca, the story of the pandemic has been the entrenchment of stereotypical gender roles as carers, and a lack of consideration of their needs. 

One in three working mothers told the Fawcett Society they had lost work or hours during the pandemic, while research by Pregnant then Screwed found that 46 per cent of mothers who had been made redundant in the pandemic blamed a lack of childcare. According to the IFS, women were a third more likely to work in the most locked-down sectors than men. Women are also more likely to be office-based workers – leaving many trying to balance home-working with home-schooling.

“There are far more women affected by this pandemic-led recession than in any recession we’ve had before" – Maria Miller MP

Before the pandemic, three-quarters of mothers with dependent children were in paid employment, a record high. Experts are worried that the impact on women’s employment may end up being much more than a temporary blip. 

“Taking [mothers] out of the labour market means they lose work experience, their skills petrify, they lose that ongoing training component. So they lose a competitive edge compared to men… They’re going to find it harder to catch up,” says Karen Mumford, professor of economics and labour market diversity at the University of York.

Maria Miller, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke and former minister for women and equalities, adds: “There are far more women affected by this pandemic-led recession than in any recession we’ve had before. The government needs to make sure that support is there for women to get back into the work that matches their skills. Too often, we see women having to down trade their jobs, because they cannot get flexible working around their family and caring responsibilities, leading to women disproportionately taking on low-paid unskilled jobs, which do not match their qualifications. We cannot afford as a country to allow that to happen.”

The precarious position of the childcare sector – closed for much of the first lockdown, and where 56 per cent of local authorities reported insufficient places pre-pandemic – has further compounded the concerns of many. “The childcare sector is teetering on the edge of a knife,” says Felicia Willow, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “Without childcare, which is an essential piece of economic infrastructure, women are going to struggle to get back into work as well.”

Aside from an additional £19m towards tackling domestic abuse, and £1.2m in support for the 2022 Women’s Euros, last week’s budget did not contain any measures specifically targeting women. The extension of furlough and targeted support for some women-dominated sectors such as hospitality, retail, and personal care will mean that many jobs are protected, and the continued £20 uplift in universal credit will disproportionately help women too (as they make up the majority of claimants). However, experts are concerned by the lack of investment in the childcare sector (which has a 98 per cent female workforce) and social care sector (82 per cent female) – not only do both tend to be low-paid, insecure jobs, but when their services are unavailable, it is women who pick up the brunt of the caring responsibility. 

Miller believes that despite the lack of targeted support, women and equalities have been more central to government decision making than some would suggest. “Possibly because women have been far more hit by [coronavirus], particularly in employment, the measures the government has put in place have obviously been disproportionately there to support women. Women are far more likely to have been furloughed, and therefore women are far more likely to have had government support because furloughing is funded by the government,” she says. On the initial response from the government, Mumford agrees: “I don’t think that was a deliberate thing on the government’s behalf, I think it was trying to react the best way it could to minimising the pandemic.” 

“We have had a year where we feel like the issues of women have been put to the backburner, actually it is the year when it needed to be out front and centre" – Felicia Willow, The Fawcett Society 

However, Dr Ashlee Christofferson, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, says the government has not considered the impact of Covid decisions on those with caring responsibilities, particularly across intersections of disadvantage. “If [the impacts on different groups of women] are being considered, the government is happy to make policy decisions which will very clearly exacerbate these inequalities,” she adds. “There’s been a huge regression in gender inequalities and other inequalities, particularly relating to employment… it would seem that the government is relying on this gender division of unpaid work and care.” 

“We have had a year where we feel like the issues of women have been put to the backburner, actually it is the year when it needed to be out front and centre. The structures are there, but they haven’t been prioritised by the government, and that’s the worry,” says Willow. “We really need to see the Government Equalities Office’s potential be taken up and see it to be the core of every single decision that’s been going forward.” 

For some observers, this apparent lack of consideration of women is symptomatic of the government’s approach to equalities under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the cabinet minister for women and equalities since September 2019, and has led to questions about whether gender equality is taken seriously.

Truss made headlines last December when she set out her stall in a speech billed as ‘The New Fight For Fairness’. Speaking at the Centre for Policy Studies, Truss launched a new Equality Hub, and said the new approach to equalities would “focus fiercely on fixing geographic inequality addressing the real problems people face in their everyday lives, using evidence and data” rather than “virtue signalling, or campaigning”.

“Now is the time to root the equality debate in the real concerns people face, like affording a home, getting to work, going out safely at night, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors and improving our schools so every child has a good chance in life,” Truss continued, saying the focus of her brief would move “well beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics and deliver real change that benefits people across our United Kingdom.” 

While Truss describes this as both tackling real discrimination while delivering on the government’s levelling up promises, critics such as Harriet Harman believe that Truss is creating “a hierarchy of inequalities, which puts the quest against inequality for women right at the bottom.” 

Willow adds: “Our fear is that the protected characteristics are being a little bit lost in that process. Obviously, a broad approach to fairness is really important, making sure that nobody is left behind. But we can’t forget that things like gender are so incredibly significant and they do need a specific approach.”

Some suggest this perceived lack of prioritisation has been demonstrated by the absence of visible progress on the government’s gender equality roadmap, launched in July 2019 by then minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt. The document included 37 policies to advance gender equality in the UK, and was published alongside a gender equality monitor, with promises for annual updates. No such updates have been forthcoming and progress on many of the measures is either unavailable or appears stalled, leading some experts to question whether it was still in use by the government. 

Mordaunt told The House she doesn’t believe the document has been sidetracked, and fellow former ministers for women and equalities Maria Miller and Nicky Morgan both say that while the conversation on women may have been less prominent this year, this is primarily down to the Covid crisis taking up a vast amount of the government’s bandwidth. Morgan points to the breadth of other work the GEO has been undertaking in the last 12 months: namely, responding to the controversial Gender Recognition Act consultation, and work on racial equality following Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate infection and death rates of Covid on BAME communities. 

Traditionally, a large part of the role of the minister for women and equalities has been to work with other ministers across government to ensure that the equalities impact of policies have been considered, supported by the GEO’s experts. Despite the pandemic, there have been some high profile successes in the women’s equality agenda across government, including the near-complete passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill through parliament, and the Hampton-Alexander review of the private sector revealing a fortnight ago that 34 per cent of FTSE 350 board members are now women. Mandatory gender pay gap reporting for employers larger than 250 people has also resumed after being suspended last year – although enforcement action will be delayed by six months, much to the dismay of campaigners. Work in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy on shared parental leave is underway, and trials with businesses on flexible job advertisements have shown positive ways forward for increasing women applicants for jobs.

However, Harini Iyengar of the Women’s Equality Party believes that successive governments have not done anywhere near enough: “We’re conspicuously not seeing the right policies from the government. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has really highlighted how women’s entitlements are not being considered by government… we can’t continue with a policy regime coming from government and/or the equalities office, which is ultimately controlled by government, in which policies are made, and then somebody afterwards says ‘let’s stick a couple of words in about equality’.”

An Equality Hub spokesperson said: “The contribution that women make to the economy is crucial. Which is why we’ve set out an unprecedented offer of support which includes help for the sectors they are more likely to be employed in, protection for female led start-ups and new childcare support.

“We understand it’s been a very difficult time for parents with childcare responsibilities and that is why we have introduced flexible furlough agreements and have extended the furlough scheme through to September, supporting employees who are struggling to work due to childcare.

“We also recognise that it is vital that children can return to school to lift some of the weight off parents across the country, which is why we have prioritised opening schools as soon as it is safe to do so.

“As we seek to build back better following the pandemic everyone will play a crucial part and we will reflect that in our policy development.”

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