Women in coronavirus firing line

Alice Arkwright sees a roll-back of gender equality in Covid-19 crisis

Over the past twelve weeks the significant gendered impacts of Covid-19 have been highlighted and there is a serious danger that progress on gender equality is being reversed. Here is some of what we know so far. 

Women are being pushed out of work

While the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) has prevented some redundancies and job losses, we’re seeing the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the labour market. The number of people on UK payrolls plunged by 600,000 between March and May, while the number of people claiming work-related benefits shot up by 126%. 

Huge job losses have occurred in sectors, like hospitality, that disproportionately employ women – 36% of young women worked in sectors that have been closed due to lockdown. Research also shows that, overall, women in the UK are 4% more likely to have lost their job during the pandemic than men, and mums are one-and-a-half times more likely than dads to have quit or lost their job or been furloughed.

Low-paid women are especially at risk of losing work. A TUC survey on experiences of pregnant women showed that low-paid pregnant women were almost twice as likely as women on median to high incomes to have lost pay or been forced to stop work.

Women are still providing the majority of care

Closures in schools, nurseries and other formal forms of childcare, as well as lockdown preventing friends and family supporting each other, has meant working parents have become full-time carers. Despite fathers reporting increased hours in care, we’re seeing the unequal division of childcare continue in lockdown, with the burden falling on women. 

BAME women are particularly impacted. Research from the Women’s Budget Group shows nearly half of BAME women were struggling to cope with the demands on their time compared to 35% of white women and 30% of white men. Additionally, almost half of BAME women said they had lost support from other people compared to 34% of white women. 

There was a crisis in the UK childcare sector prior to the pandemic, with only 57% of local authorities having enough childcare available for early years. This is set to worsen, with as many as one in four childcare providers saying they don’t expect to be open by Christmas, and those that do open will have limited capacity due to social distancing. This means some care will need to be provided by parents for the foreseeable future.

There are real concerns about women being able to return to the workplace whilst they are bearing the brunt of increased caring responsibilities. According to a TUC survey of mothers planning on returning to work in the next three months, 71% said they are currently unable to find the childcare to do so. 

There needs to be a continued package of support until schools, nurseries and other childcare are back at full capacity – otherwise there is a risk that women will be unable to return or be unfairly selected for redundancy and dismissal.

Women’s health and safety is at risk

Women, BAME and migrant workers are on the frontline of this crisis. Of the workers at higher risk of exposure to coronavirus, 77% are women; this rises to 98% within low-paid jobs. Women and BAME workers make up large percentages of the health and social care sector, where death rates have been high and there are inadequate levels of PPE. 

Research has also shown that pregnant women are either not receiving adequate risk assessments or employers are not taking necessary actions to reduce risks identified, placing them in dangerous conditions. 

Women are taking on more caring responsibilities, are more likely to be at risk and are more likely to be out of work. Without immediate and sustained government intervention – such as a cash boost to the childcare sector, protections for low paid workers, increased flexible working and some form of the JRS until schools and nurseries are fully functioning – there is a risk that decades of progress could be undone. 

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