‘There’s a sense that care is a women’s issue’: why pandemic recovery could jeopardise gender equality

Women have disproportionately shouldered the impact of the Covid pandemic - yet the Government’s recovery plan could widen the gender gap in the UK further still.

Women tend to take on more caring responsibilities for children and elderly relatives.

Eight weeks after giving birth in the summer of 2020, Emily Wright was at home with her newborn when she received word that her employer - a major retailer - was commencing a redundancy process.

The pandemic had hit the company’s finances hard, and Emily, who asked NationalWorld not to use her real name, was told she would have to re-interview for her role while still on maternity leave.

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“I told [the company] it would be difficult to find an hour as my baby needed feeding on demand but they gave me no option. During the interview she was crying upstairs with my partner,” she recalls.

Of the three candidates being re-interviewed for just two jobs, Emily was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate. Following the job interview, however, she was told she wasn’t selected.

“I worked with [the women] being interviewed and they were on grades below me.

“I believe they made me redundant because I was on maternity leave, because they thought I would come back to work on a part-time basis,” she says.

Emily was due to have a further consultation meeting to discuss her redundancy, but just two months later, the company went into administration, making her redundant the same day.

Pandemic’s effect on gender equality

Since the pandemic arrived and wreaked havoc on the UK economy, millions of people like Emily have lost their jobs, had hours cut or been placed on furlough. Women, however, have disproportionately shouldered the burden.

With women around a third more likely to have worked in a sector that was shut down in 2020, more likely to have been put on furlough and significantly more likely to have lost their jobs than men, a recent PwC report warned the effect was so severe that the pandemic risks “revers[ing] the progress made by the OECD towards gender parity in the workplace”.

This damage, warns the PwC, could take “years to repair”, yet gender equality groups like the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) fear post-pandemic recovery plans have thus far failed to account for the gendered impact of coronavirus.

“It’s entirely predictable that women have been affected differently by the pandemic,” says Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the WBG, pointing out that women are “more likely to be employed in sectors that were shut down like retail, hospitality and so on”, making them more likely to have been furloughed, had hours cut or lost their jobs.

There’s a risk, as in Emily’s case, that the jobs once available to these women might no longer exist, forcing them to change their hours, careers or even their location.

“There’s not a lot of jobs in my specific field where I live...I may have to think about changing my career,” she says.

Yet returning to work following redundancy is about more than just the availability of jobs, explains Mary, pointing out that “women have always done more unpaid work, particularly care work in the home, either for children or elderly relatives”.

Closures of stretched childcare providers and elderly social care settings during the pandemic placed a huge “extra burden” on women, say Mary, with some even forced to give up work or reduce hours because of care responsibilities.

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A lack of funding for care sector

Without further funding and assistance for the childcare and social care sectors, she explains, there’s a risk women will be severely limited in their options for returning to work.

“We’re in danger of seeing a situation where, as women are looking to return to work, they’re finding the childcare just isn’t there,” she says.

Many experts fear the consequences will soon be felt in women either leaving the workforce entirely, or being forced to take on more flexible jobs which amount to lower earnings.

Mary’s greatest frustration, she says, is that “none of this is inevitable”.

“We know how the economy works, it’s not like the weather. The government could decide to invest in the childcare sector and invest in the social care sector.”

Last year, WBG analysis called for a “care led” recovery from coronavirus, finding that investing in the care sector would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction, while leading to 30% less in greenhouse gas emissions than investing the same amount in construction.

Such a recovery would help to rebalance the inequalities created by the pandemic while also creating jobs for everyone, yet, says Mary, the focus of the government coming out of the pandemic remains “build build build”.

“The government's plan for post-Covid recovery is all build, build, build, there's nothing about childcare,” she says.

In the US, Mary points out, Joe Biden’s administration has recognised childcare as essential infrastructure akin to roads or rail, yet in the UK, “there’s still a sense among policymakers that care is just women’s stuff, that it’s private”.

“There isn’t recognition that care is actually fundamental infrastructure,” she adds.

Longer-term, the impact of this missing infrastructure could have profound implications for wider society, says Mary.

“The risk is that women lose their jobs or can’t do them because of childcare...the pay gap gets wider and larger numbers of people fall into poverty.

“We’d then see an increase in child poverty which has already gone up over the last ten years...that has a huge knock-on effect for children’s lives,” she explains.

Mary notes, too, that this economic impact could intersect with the rise in domestic violence seen during the pandemic.

“We often treat a women’s economic situation and violence against women as two separate things,” she says.

“But women in poverty are at much higher risk of violence because they have fewer options.”

It’s a situation Mary hopes won’t come to pass as we emerge from over a year of lockdowns and job losses. Yet the real test will come later in 2021, she says, once financial support schemes like furlough end.

“The way things look at the moment, the way the government is responding, I think we’re in danger of serious trouble [for women] when the furlough scheme ends in September.”