Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were vast inequalities between men and women in the world of work. Despite chipping away at the glass ceiling over recent decades, in 2020 the gender pay gap still remains stubbornly high, while more men called Steve and Dave run FTSE 100 companies than women.
Four months from the launch of lockdown, and as Britain slips into the deepest recession for three centuries, it is increasingly clear the economic fallout from the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women.
Decades of progress – although very much incomplete – risk being unwound, in a crisis that has shone a light on a myriad of social and economic issues. Earlier this week the International Monetary Fund warned that if left unchecked, 30 years of gains for women’s economic opportunities could be erased, and called for governments around the world to take immediate action to prevent longer-term damage.
Working mothers in particular are bearing the brunt. Centuries of structural social convention have ensured the tasks of childcare and homeschooling are more likely to fall on their shoulders, while the demographics of employment in the worst hit sectors of the economy – such as hospitality and retail – mean women are more likely to lose their jobs.
Given the scale of the economic shock, the government’s economics forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), estimates that unemployment for both men and women will more than double by the end of this year to the highest levels since the 1980s.
The government is, however, preparing to scale back its emergency response to the economic shock from next month, as Boris Johnson attempts to secure a return to normality in time for Christmas, despite warnings over a second wave of Covid-19 infections and more job losses this winter.
To kickstart the recovery, billions of pounds in tax cuts and spending measures have been promised by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. But experts say much of the money will miss the mark. The Women’s Budget Group argues much more investment in social infrastructure – including childcare and social care – is also required to stimulate growth.
Since the onset of the pandemic, as many as 9.5m jobs at 1.2m companies have been furloughed on the Treasury’s furlough scheme, which pays 80% of workers’ wages, up to £2,500 per month. A further 2.7 million claims have been made by the self-employed. Both schemes will, however, be closed by the end of October, with at least 10% of furloughed jobs expected to be made redundant.
Official figures show men are more likely to be furloughed, in part because women have typically continued working through the crisis in education, health and social care jobs – sectors where they are over represented. The TUC estimates that out of 9.8 million key workers putting their health at risk on the frontline, nearly two-thirds are women. However, as many as 2.6 million female key workers earn less than £10 an hour.
Before Covid-19, there were signs of progress towards a more balanced, modern workplace as the number of women in work surged to a record high, including record numbers of working mothers. Despite this, official figures show men still earn 17.8% more than women on average across the whole economy. The Fawcett Society estimates it would take 60 years to eradicate the gender pay gap on pre-crisis trends. But given the scale of the economic shock for women currently unfolding, it expects parity to be delayed by three decades until the year 2110.
As unemployment begins to rise, experts warn job losses are likely to be disproportionately felt by women, given their prominence in sectors hardest hit by the crisis – such as hospitality, leisure and retail. Globally, the International Labour Organization estimates that almost 510 million, or 40% of all employed women, work in the four most affected sectors, compared to 36.6% of men.
In Britain, young women in particular are overrepresented in these sectors: 36% compared with 25% of young men. Overall, 17% of women compared with 13% of men work in hospitality, leisure and retail, at a time when barely a week goes by without a big high street name announcing redundancies.
Combining these workforce demographics with longstanding social norms, experts believe mothers are one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since lockdown began.
Working mothers in traditional nuclear families have taken up a greater share of domestic work and childcare in the hours usually occupied by employment. What with juggling Zoom meetings, home-schooling and lunch times, mothers in two-parent households have been doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work of fathers on average, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Mothers are doing two fewer hours of paid work each day than fathers, but two more hours of childcare and housework.
The closure of schools and nurseries further exacerbated the unequal distribution of unpaid care work before the pandemic. But experts warn these trends will persist when offices begin to reopen from 1 August, worsened by the anticipated closure of 10,000 childcare providers crushed by the coronavirus crisis.
“This will inevitably create a two-tier recovery with men getting back in to the labour market at a faster rate than women,” said Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of Women’s Budget Group. “If the government is committed to getting the workforce up and running, then care and women must be at the centre of any economic recovery plan.”