Women bear the brunt

While the cost of living crisis is hitting most people, Alice Arkwright looks at how it will hit women hardest

Across the country, families are facing the biggest wages and bills crisis in living memory.

We are all feeling the effects of these crises; but we know, due to the division of caring responsibilities and existing sexism at work, women are likely to feel it more intensely.

This crisis didn’t come out of nowhere and it isn’t set to finish soon. Workers’ real pay is still below where it was before the global financial crisis, and we continue to experience the longest pay squeeze in 200 years. The OBR forecasts that real weekly wages are to fall by £11 per week in 2022 and fall again in 2023. Shockingly, they are forecasting that the 2022-23 financial year will see the biggest fall in living standards since records began, and a key factor in this is the failure of earnings to keep pace with rising inflation.

At the same time, the cost of bills is going up. Energy bills are rising by 54 per cent, food inflation was 4.3 per cent in February, the price of petrol is increasing, and recent TUC research shows that one in three parents of pre-school age children spend more than a third of their pay on childcare. Everything is going up but pay.

Polling by the Jubilee Debt Campaign in March revealed that three million people fear they will be pushed into debt over the next six months.

TUC polling from December 2021 showed that women were already feeling the squeeze more. Women were more likely (26 per cent compared to 20 per cent) than men to state they will struggle to afford more than the basics in the next 6 months and even to afford the basics in the next 6 months (14 per cent of women compared to 11 per cent of men). Women were also less likely to say they would increase their savings in the next 6 months (22 per cent compared to 28 per cent).

This is because women already face structural disadvantage in our labour market. The gender pay gap stands at 15 per cent, rising to 25 per cent in education and 32 per cent in the finance and insurance sector. And for some women it’s even higher – disabled women face a pay gap of 36 per cent.

Women are more likely to be in low paid jobs, have lower levels of savings compared to men and be less likely to take on additional hours of work due to caring responsibilities. This all means they are less likely to be able to cope with additional hits to household finances.

There are around 2.5 million women key workers who earn under £10 an hour. One in 10 (1.4 million) women workers earn too little to get any sick pay. TUC research shows that BME women are twice as likely to be on a zero-hours contract than white men.   

Mums took on the lion’s share of caring responsibilities during the pandemic when home schooling was in place. Now, they’re more likely to have to take time off work to care for their children when they get Covid-19.

A lack of flexible working and the cost of childcare mean too many women have to sacrifice hours and pay for caring responsibilities. A recent survey from Pregnant Then Screwed found that 40 per cent of mums said they have had to work fewer hours than they would like because of childcare costs. And a lack of flexible working means many women end up in lower paid part-time work.

Despite all of this, the spring statement failed working women. There was nothing on increasing the minimum wage, nothing on boosting pay for public sector workers (where women are over-represented), and nothing on tackling the extortionate cost of childcare.

If the government really want to help women through these crises, we need to see much more. They must increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour now, ban zero-hour contracts and increase statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage. For women to balance their caring responsibilities and work without cuts to hours or leaving work altogether, the government must introduce a right to genuine flexible working from the first day in the job, introduce 10 days’ paid parental leave per year for each child, and invest in affordable and quality childcare.

Over a decade of austerity, the impacts of the pandemic and now the crises of wages and bills risk turning back the clock on progress towards women’s equality at work. The government is choosing to stand back and watch.

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