International Women’s Day takes place every year on 8 March to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and to call for gender parity. This year, the House of Lords is marking the day on 11 March with a debate moved by Baroness Berridge, Minister for Women, on “the United Kingdom’s role in empowering women in the recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”. This article focuses on the economic and labour market effects on women, and what the Government has said about empowering women economically in the recovery.

How has the pandemic affected women?

Analysis of Covid-19 data from around the world suggests that men make up a higher share than women of reported hospitalisations (53%), intensive care admissions (68%) and deaths (57%) globally. But the impacts of the pandemic extend beyond the health outcomes for people who have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There have also been significant economic impacts from measures adopted to control the spread of the coronavirus, and these have affected women in specific ways. The Women’s Budget Group, an independent network of academic researchers, policy experts and campaigners outlined ways that women in the employment market in the UK have been impacted:

  • Women are the majority of employees in industries with some of the highest Covid-19 job losses, including retail, accommodation and food services.
  • Overall, more women than men have been furloughed across the UK, and young women have been particularly impacted. Estimates for the end of January 2021 see a significant rise in furloughing as a result of the third national lockdown, reaching 2.32 million for women, and 2.18 million for men.
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women began the pandemic with one of the lowest rates of employment. In 2020, this was still the case, with BAME women’s employment at 62.5% and the highest rate of unemployment at 8.8% (compared with 4.5% for white people and 8.5% for BAME people overall). Between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020, the number of BAME women workers had fallen by 17%, compared to 1% for white women.
  • 46% of mothers that have been made redundant during the pandemic cite lack of adequate childcare as the cause. 70% of women with caring responsibilities who requested furlough following school closures in 2021 had their request denied. This has led to almost half of working mothers (48%) being worried about negative treatment from an employer because of childcare responsibilities.
  • During the first national lockdown, those in low-paid work were twice as likely to be on furlough or have their hours reduced as those in higher income jobs, hitting women in particular as there are twice as many women as men in the bottom 10% of earners.
  • By the end of 2020, 546,000 women had made self-employed income support scheme claims (totalling £1.2 billion), compared with 1,376,000 men (totalling £4.2 billion). There was a clear gendered difference in actual take-up rate, with only 51% of eligible women claiming, compared to 60% of eligible men.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee carried out an inquiry into the gendered economic impact of coronavirus, reporting in February 2021. It found that “existing gendered inequalities in the economy have been ignored and sometimes exacerbated by the pandemic policy response”.

Some academics have suggested the furlough design and implementation of the furlough scheme could lead to women being “disproportionately excluded from receiving adequate support” because of their over-representation in temporary and casual employment in hard hit sectors, their concentration among the low-paid, and their taking on of the majority of unpaid care work. The self-employment income support scheme has been criticised because it does not discount time taken for maternity leave when average earnings are calculated. Grants under the scheme are worked out on the basis of previous profits. The High Court recently dismissed a legal claim against the Government for indirect sexual discrimination in the design of this scheme.

Opportunities for change

Some of the changes brought about by the crisis could become opportunities to decrease gender inequality, it has been suggested. For instance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted the rise in working from home and the new technologies that have facilitated this could provide “the tipping point for a change in the way we work”. It believed an increase in the prevalence or productivity of remote working could be “particularly important for women, who we know are often constrained during motherhood by seeking work close to their home”. While women still spend more time on childcare than men do, the IFS documented a rise in the amount done by men. It suggested that over the longer term, this could “help to provide some of the change in social norms necessary to provide an even balance in childcare that has been so hard to achieve to date”, potentially narrowing the gender wage gap.

What is the UK Government doing?

Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said in April 2020 that women’s economic empowerment would be a particular focus for the Government as the country enters the post-pandemic recovery period. She said the Government wanted to support women to launch new businesses, particularly in the technology sector, and to rectify the fact there are fewer female than male entrepreneurs. She argued that the UK’s gender pay gap arose not from paying men and women different amounts for the same job, but because of “occupational segregation” that saw men and women going into particular types of careers. She said it would be important, as the country left the immediate Covid crisis, to look at how to get women into jobs with high productivity and high wages. Ms Truss also identified there was an “opportunity to capitalise on some of those cultural changes that have happened to make it easier for people balancing family and career to work from home, to make it more flexible and to challenge the culture of presenteeism”.

In a speech in December 2020, Ms Truss set out what she described as “a new approach to equality […] based on the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity and individual humanity and dignity”. Rather than a “narrow focus of protected characteristics” under the Equality Act 2010, she talked about delivering “fairness, not favouritism”. She argued that policies such as transparent reporting of pay structures, and automatic promotions based on performance would help level up opportunities for women in the workplace. She committed to working with the Business Secretary to enable more flexible working, which she said would improve productivity and empower employees to combine work with other responsibilities.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee has expressed concerns about the “heavily gendered” nature of government priorities for the post-pandemic recovery. It referred to the approach set out by the Prime Minister for a ‘New Deal for Britain’ in a speech in June 2020, with a focus on large infrastructure projects, technology innovation and planning reforms to kickstart the construction industry. The committee argued these investment plans were “skewed towards male-dominated sectors”. It called on the Government to tackle gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and construction careers, so that women would not “lose out in the recovery”. In particular, the committee recommended the Government should fund training schemes specifically aimed at women through schemes such as Kickstart and Restart, publish an action plan to increase the number of women in STEM apprenticeships, establish quotas for women in the Kickstart scheme, and train JobCentre Plus coaches on supporting applicants into gender ‘atypical’ jobs.

The committee also noted it had “seen little evidence that the Government has conducted any robust or meaningful analysis of the gendered impact of its economic policies during the coronavirus crisis”. It reminded the Government of its “continuing legal duty to ensure its policies and decisions do not adversely affect groups of people with protected characteristics”. It also called on the Government to publish more equality impact assessments and collect data in ways that would allow better equality analysis. On a related note, it was critical of the decision to suspend the requirement for employers to report on the gender pay gap in the 2019/20 reporting year due to the pandemic. The reporting requirement has been reinstated for 2020/21, but employers will have an extra six months to publish their data. The Government has not yet responded to the committee’s report.

The Government had already made commitments to greater flexible working and employment protections before the pandemic. The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto said the party would encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. In the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government said it would introduce an Employment Bill to legislate for default flexible working, subject to the consultation. The Government has said within the last few weeks it would launch the flexible working consultation “in due course” and introduce the Employment Bill “as soon as possible”. The Women and Equalities Committee has urged the Government to remove the existing requirement for an employee to have worked for their employer for 26 weeks before they have a statutory right to request flexible working.

The Government also said in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech it would use the Employment Bill to extend redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination. This issue has been particularly highlighted by the pandemic. For instance, a survey of 3,400 pregnant women and mothers on maternity leave carried out in June 2020 by the TUC found that one in four had experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough.

International situation

There have been similar economic impacts on women elsewhere around the world. A recent report from the European Commission on gender equality in the EU found that women in the labour market have been hard hit by the pandemic because they are overrepresented in the worst-affected economic sectors. A study by the International Labour Organisation also found women’s jobs were relatively more at risk than men’s and that for women who remained in employment, their greater care obligations forced them to cut down on paid working hours or extend their total working hours (paid and unpaid) to unsustainable levels.

UN Women, the United Nations (UN) body for gender equality and women’s empowerment, has warned girls in low-income countries will be hit particularly hard by school closures and rising demands for unpaid care and domestic work—an estimated 11 million girls may not return to school due to Covid-19. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) recognises that Covid-19 has “raised the stakes for girls’ education, deepening the crisis in basic skills that they already face”. The FCDO said in March 2021 it has already adapted its education programmes in 18 countries in response. It also plans to use the UK’s presidency of the G7 this year to support girls’ education. It intends to publish an action plan to call on the international community to do more to secure 12 years of quality education for every girl. Although the UK’s overseas aid budget was reduced in the November 2020 spending review, the Foreign Secretary has said that “girls’ education is a top priority to safeguard”.

Cover image by Christina @ on Unsplash.