Women in firing line

Alice Arkwright says TUC research spotlights gender discrimination writ large in the pandemic

Every week we’re seeing more and more evidence of the gendered impacts of Covid. Of the 100,000 people who left the workforce in Italy in December 2020, 99,000 were women. In the US, 140,000 jobs were lost in December; women accounted for all of these.

In the UK we’re seeing similar patterns. The House of Commons women and equalities select committee published a report in early February warning the Government that the pandemic is worsening existing inequalities for women, saying urgent reforms were needed. These included reinstating gender pay gap reporting (which was suspended in 2020), extending redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers, and reviewing childcare provisions for job seekers.

The committee also recommended the Government assess the equality impact of its recovery plan, saying it was skewed towards male-dominated industries like construction, despite female-dominated sectors such as retail and hospitality being the hardest hit.

TUC research during the pandemic has highlighted the huge burden being placed on women as restrictions continue. Whilst the decision to return to home schooling in January was necessary to keep teachers and communities safe, women are overwhelmingly feeling the impact as they take on the majority of care and supervision of children at home.

The TUC’s survey of over 55,000 working parents, 93% of whom were women, found that nine in ten mums’ mental health has been negatively impacted by the stress and anxiety of juggling care and work, and that 25% are worried about losing their jobs.

Also, shockingly, despite the fact that since April employers have been able to furlough parents who can’t work due to restrictions on schools, 70% of requests by working mums for furlough had been denied.

This has left women working incredibly long hours, using annual leave to cover care and home schooling, being forced to work reduced hours, taking extended periods of unpaid leave or being forced to leave their jobs.

One public sector worker described her day: “At 5pm when I technically finish work, it’s then starting dinner, bath & bedtime. Then cleaning up. By 8pm I was exhausted but had to start working again. I finished at 1am and was up at 5.30am (as usual) with my three-year-old.”

This is completely unsustainable. Women are exhausted, worried about using up annual leave now when there are school holidays to cover in the coming year, and being forced into poverty through loss of hours and pay. TUC research found that one in six mums had to reduce their hours at work as a direct result of restrictions on school.

Single parents are particularly affected, 90% of whom are women, as they are less likely to have someone to share care responsibilities with.

We also know that BAME women are more likely to suffer from job loss. Across the country, 1 in 12 BAME people are now unemployed, compared to 1 in 22 for white workers.

Sian Elliott, women’s equality policy officer at the TUC, says: “We are witnessing a staggering and rapid reversal of gender equality at work. Decades of progress are being lost in a matter of months. It is not only the pandemic itself causing women harm but the Government’s response to it. They have failed to take into account the impact of their decision and policy-making on women, and our research has shown this has deepened the inequalities women face. There is time to fix this. And that starts with listening to women, working with their unions and taking a care-led approach to our economic recovery.”

In the immediate future, the TUC is urging the Government to act by creating a temporary legal right to access the furlough scheme for those who cannot work due to increased caring responsibilities as a result of restrictions, or because they are required to shield. At the moment, workers are allowed to request furlough but their employer can refuse it, leaving parents trapped in an impossible situation.

This should be without victimisation or discrimination of anyone who chooses to take it up and parents should be able to share furlough on a flexible basis. The Government should also ensure that newly self-employed parents have automatic access to the self-employed income support scheme.

The TUC are also urging employers to do the right thing and make use of the Job Retention Scheme as well as explore other options during this period, such as temporarily reducing workload and hours with no reduction to pay, changing work times and other forms of flexible work. By not doing this, employers risk losing valued and skilled members of their workforce.

The impacts we are seeing on women are in part caused by the UK’s underwhelming provision for working parents. We have one of the least generous parental leave systems in Europe, with no right to paid leave for parents who need to take time off for care. In addition to the right to furlough, the Government need to take immediate action and introduce:

  • ten days paid parental leave from day one in the job for all parents
  • the right to flexible work from day one. This can include predictable shift patterns, working from home, compressed hours, job shares or term-time working.

The Government must also work with unions to ensure schools can reopen safely.

Not taking these actions risks the reversal of progress made on gender equality.

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