It’s become a cliché but the Covid-19 storm has not found us all in the same boat. The impact on income, on employment, even on the chances of contracting the virus and recovering, is hugely influenced by three factors – ethnicity, gender and poverty.
It seems a particularly bitter pill to swallow that a lot of the progress made in improving the chances of those groups has been set back perhaps as much as a decade by the impact of the pandemic.
In truth, employment chances, which are so tightly linked to wider life chances, within these groups are far more vulnerable to disruption – and Covid-19 is the ultimate disruptive force both socially and economically.
As we approach International Women’s Day 2021 we can increasingly see that a lot of the progress made over the last few years in life chances for women is linked to work; but those jobs just aren’t resilient enough. They are part time, they are zero hours contracts, they are informal, they are low skilled, they are concentrated in sectors like retail and hospitality. In summary, they are vulnerable and unless we can make very significant strides in changing the resilience of employment for very large parts of our workforce the impact on poverty, and on economic recovery will roll on and on.
Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses so far; and that’s just the ones we know about – the ones that are part of the formal economy. Part of this is because of the concentration of women in certain sectors but it also reflects other painful realities; women were just simply more likely to be let go from jobs, even the same jobs, than men. Or be unable to continue to work because of other Covid factors – like childcare, inability to travel, lack of access to IT.
Sadly it has become very clear that women have also shouldered a disproportionate burden during the pandemic. Among women in employment it’s often referred to as the second role – the job that’s starts after the day job (or in the middle of the day job!). The UN estimates that women are spending up to 30% more time on domestic duties during the pandemic than they were before. This is due to lack of childcare, lack of domestic support, lack of access to support networks, and in the most extreme cases unemployment causing real financial difficulty that means being forced to claim benefits, use food banks, struggling to manage on a budget. All of these are hugely time hungry – and emotionally draining. At the start of the second UK lockdown in October the health charity CARE found that 27% of women had reported struggles around mental health. This compared to 10% of men. They identified that unpaid labour in the house had increased exponentially leading to stress, worries about food, work and health care, and a disproportionate level of anxiety among women about the wellbeing and happiness of their families.
Women are also 9/10 of the UK’s population of single parents, more likely to require social housing, more likely to be living in poverty. 1 in 4 will experience domestic violence in their lives (as opposed to 1 in 28 among men).
The problem won’t end with the rollout of a vaccine. Recovery needs to be universal. The next few months of policy and practical interventions have to target the fundamental resilience of employment for women. There has to be a concerted effort to move them into sectors that are agile, flexible and well paid, which will require investment in re-skilling and re-training. This is root and branch reform, of childcare, of benefits that support people moving into work, of regional and industrial investment policy. Without these things more women may permanently drop out of the workforce – the benefits of narrowing the gender equality gap around pay, health, education and digital inclusion disproportionately outweigh the cost of closing the gap. Both morally and economically.
Understandably one of the side effects of the pandemic has been a tunnel vision around survival – both literally and metaphorically. But the time has come to start tackling the root causes of this epidemic of inequality – that the progress we had made was more fragile than we believed and that the time to challenge the assumptions, policies, habits and conditions that make that true must be challenged. Today.
It’s not only good for women; it’s good for children, for families, for businesses, for our economy, for our long term recovery.