Gender inequality

Last Updated:
August 22, 2021
The Issues

The uneven impact of Covid-19

The pandemic has sharpened the pre-existing economic disparity between men and women. Women are more likely to have lost work and income. They are more likely to work in low-paid, insecure frontline roles. In many of the sectors that have suffered most - retail, hospitality, tourism - women are over-represented.

During the pandemic women have continued to do more unpaid domestic and care work than men. During school closures, for instance, 70% of mothers reported being completely or mostly responsible for homeschooling, and mothers were 50% more likely to be interrupted during paid work hours. Covid disproportionately affected women’s mental health.

Covid lockdowns also sharply increased the incidence of domestic violence. Low income and migrant status both significantly increase women’s vulnerability to domestic abuse, underlining the need for policymakers to understand how gender intersects with other axes of inequality.

Better policymaking

Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, public bodies are required to have 'due regard' to gender and other types of equality. Many organisations concerned with equalities argue that this requires public bodies to undertake equality impact assessments (EIAs) to ensure that policy does not discriminate against women, ethnic minorities and other groups protected under the 2010 Equality Act.

Many economists have argued that assessments of policy from government, as well as the media, should be based on a broader account of economic and social progress. This means targeting the reduction of inequalities as well as focussing on GDP growth. 'Gender budgeting', analysing government spending and tax decisions in terms of their impact on women, is one such approach.  

The care sector

It is generally acknowledged that social care services in the UK have suffered from a long period of political neglect, and entered the Covid-19 pandemic in a fragmented, under-funded and under-staffed condition. There is widespread consensus on the need for reform to make the care system more resilient, expanding access to and increasing the quality of services.

Investing in public care services would make a significant contribution to tackling gender inequality. Greater public care provision could relieve the burden on unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women. As 80% of the adult social care workforce are also women, action to tackle recruitment and retention challenges in the sector would so much to improve pay and conditions.

There is evidence of majority public support for extending the principles underlying the NHS to social care, making it free at the point of need and largely taxpayer-funded.

Over recent decades, as most of the UK's social care provision was outsourced from the public sector, private equity companies have taken over a significant proportion of care homes. It is widely argued that the 'financialisation' of care provision has undermined the quality of service.

Social infrastructure

Social infrastructure is the term now commonly given to those sectors of the economy - health, education, adult social care and childcare - which are critical for its effective functioning but which are often neglected in both economic theory and policy. Spending on social systems is rarely classed as ‘investment’, despite the investment-like returns in these areas. It can be argued that this reflects a gender bias in economic policy making.

The majority of jobs in social infrastructure sectors are held by women, and many of them by people of colour. Pay is often very low. Investment in these sectors could therefore help to reduce both gender and racial inequalities. Social infrastructure sectors are also 'green', using less energy and material resources than many other sectors, particularly physical infrastructure.

Improved access to affordable childcare is a critical part of social infrastructure provision, giving parents, particularly women, the ability to take up and stay in paid work.

The gender pay gap

Women in full-time employment in the UK are paid 7% less on average per hour than their male counterparts. Among employees as a whole, women earn on average 15% less than men per hour. This is largely because women are over-represented in part-time employment, which is less well paid. 

One factor behind the gender pay gap is illegal pay discrimination - unequal pay for equal work. Another is the uneven burden of unpaid care work. A key issue is the 'maternity penalty', the economic cost to mothers of taking on more unpaid child-rearing than men, which slows their career progression and leads many women to take on more flexible, less senior and less well-paid roles. Encouraging men to take on more childcare, for example by increasing paternity leave, could help redress this imbalance.

The introduction of mandatory gender pay gap reporting in large employers has generally been recognised as incentivising pay equality.  But the pay gap is proportionately much greater among higher-paid jobs than lower-paid, a consequence of the fact that in many sectors senior positions are still dominated by men.

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