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.
The Fawcett Society has collated evidence on the social and economic impacts of Covid-19 on women and how these have intersected with other axes of inequality.
A 2020 survey of 19,950 mothers by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found significant employer discrimination against mothers. 15% of mothers had been or were expecting to be made redundant during the pandemic, nearly half of whom said that lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy.
The Women’s Budget Group has published an analysis of the gender differences in access to coronavirus government support schemes, finding women more likely to be furloughed than men, and young women aged 18-25 were the largest group furloughed by age and gender.
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 Women's Budget Group sets out how Equality Impact Assessments can ensure that policy makers take account of the different impacts of policy on women. Meaningful equality impact assessments should consider cumulative impact, intersectional impact (for example on women of colour and disabled women), the impact on individuals as well as households, impact over a lifetime and the impact on unpaid care.
The Women’s Budget Group has curated a set of resources on gender budgeting, the analysis of tax and spending decisions from a gender perspective. It argues that this approach can also be applied to other types of inequality.
The Fawcett Society has proposed a new Equal Pay Bill which would modernise UK law on equal pay. The Bill would give women who suspect they are not getting equal pay the ‘Right to Know’ what a male colleague doing the same work is paid, thereby enabling women to resolve equal pay issues without having to go to court.
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.
Modelling by the New Economics Foundation for the NHS has analysed the economic and health cost to society of unpaid care work in England. NEF estimates these costs to be £37bn per year including lost tax revenue and mental health treatment. It argues that this underlines the economic case for greater public investment in care provision.
The final report of the Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy outlines eight steps required to create a 'caring economy'. These include the creation of a Universal Care Service. The Commission argues that a care-led approach to economic policy could form the basis of economic renewal, akin to the creation of the welfare state in 1945.
IPPR have laid out proposals for a social care system free at the point of need, supported by research on public opinion and on the effects of financialisation in the social care system.
The Women’s Budget Group has brought together evidence on the need for reform of social care, highlighting the problems of deregulation and privatisation in the care sector and the effects on gender inequality, for example through increasing strain on unpaid carers.
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.
Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group estimates that investing in care as part of an economic stimulus package would provide almost three times as many jobs as the equivalent investment in construction. It would narrow gender inequality and also have positive environmental impact.
The Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review argues that investment in physical infrastructure alone will not narrow the UK’s unusually pronounced regional inequalities, emphasising the need for social infrastructure spending.
Coram Family and Childcare argues that four key goals should inform childcare policy: making sure every parent is better off working after childcare costs; making sure there is enough high quality childcare for all children, including those of school age; making sure children with special education needs or disabilities can access high quality childcare; and recognising the value of childcare professionals through pay, professional development and representation.
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.
A report by the Women's Budget Group, the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick found that the largest economic burden of the pandemic has been experienced by working class women, and called for sick pay to match the National Living Wage.
In its The State of Pay report IPPR provides an overview and explanation of the drivers of the gender pay gap in the UK, and how these might be redressed.
Examining the history and causes of the gender pay gap, Linda Scott of the Said Business School at Oxford argues that it is the result of entrenched biases in institutions run by men.
The final report of the Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy shows how unpaid and undervalued care work contribute to the gender pay gap and proposes a series of measures to invest in social care and childcare which would enhance women's pay both directly and indirectly by enabling more women to continue in paid work.
The Fawcett Society has conducted a comparative study of the gender pay gap indifferent countries. It finds that the UK approach is more light touch than elsewhere, resulting in fewer incentives on organisations to improve women's pay.