We cannot allow the pandemic to set gender parity back decades

Let's use International Women’s Day 2021 to highlight the urgency of releasing women from the unequal pressure of COVID-19.

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) and alongside the celebrations of women’s achievements and progress towards gender parity, we must not allow the pandemic to set us back decades. This International Women’s Day is in the middle of a pandemic, which has exacerbated gender inequality issues in the UK but especially for women in poverty.

Pre-pandemic inequities have widened during the pandemic, especially for single mothers

Before the pandemic, women were more likely to be stuck on low pay, more likely to be working in lower-paid sectors and lower-paid roles in higher-paid sectors, and trapped in underemployment due to childcare and transport barriers. COVID-19 has made this worse, as those lower-paid roles are the least likely to be allowed to work from home. Pre COVID-19, 56% of mothers made a change to their employment due to childcare, with 3 in 10 mums reducing their hours. This is simply unacceptable that women are unable to stay in employment purely due to unpaid labour.

Unpaid labour

According to the UK Harmonised European Time Use Survey (TUC) (2015), before the pandemic women were doing more hours on average of unpaid work per week, especially in childcare, cooking, and housework. When asked about this during the pandemic, women highlighted that this has only worsened as they report a reduction in paid work and further inequities in unpaid labour. Also, women have reported being disproportionately turned down for furlough during the first lockdown. According to the TUC, an unacceptable 7 in 10 women who applied for furlough were turned down. Nine in 10 have experienced higher anxiety and stress levels. Single mothers, particularly, are at breaking point according to Gingerbread. Ninety percent of single parents are women, and they are bearing the brunt of the effect of the pandemic.

I believe that those who set all these laws don’t see how much difference a sum like £20 makes. To them, it’s only £20 but if you’re on Universal Credit (UC), you know exactly the figure you’re getting, you know exactly what figure your bills are, you know exactly where all your money is going. I’m a single mum and I depend on UC – it’s not because I want to be, it’s because I don’t have a choice. £20 seems like a small amount – when I was working I might not have thought about that £20 but now I’m on UC I really feel it.
Female, London

Before the pandemic, one in three single parents were stuck in low pay, compared to 18% of mothers in couples. Single parents saw the largest impact on hours worked and pay as single parents saw a 26% decrease in their hours worked, compared to 21% for couple parents and couples without children. Couple parents experienced a negligible (0%) impact on their weekly pay, whereas single parents experienced a 3% decrease in their pay. One in three single parents in employment were furloughed during the first lockdown, and since most of the single parents are women, this suggests that the recovery will be increasingly important for these women as they were more likely to be furloughed, especially compared to couple parents (25%).

Finally, the impact on finances cannot be ignored, as single mothers were struggling before the pandemic and this has only continued with 18% of single parents expecting their future financial situation will be worse, and 13% are behind on their bills, compared to 14% and 8% for couple parents. However, women, with or without children, were more likely to report they were behind in their bills during and before the pandemic, highlighting the precarity amongst women before the storm. Also, women were more likely to report that their employer was making cuts and therefore they reported a reduction in their hours. Sadly, they were also more likely to report being made unemployed, whereas men were more likely to report being furloughed. This is simply unacceptable. In the past we have highlighted the precarious situation women can be in if they cannot access the labour market effectively. To truly solve UK poverty, it is essential that women can participate in the labour market in the same fashion as men. The outcomes for women who are unable to participate in the labour market are clear. A lifetime of lower earnings means women who are single pensioners have a higher poverty rate than men in the same situation. We cannot allow the pandemic to turn back the clock on gender equality.

As a carer, it was already very hard finding a job which would provide flexibility around caring responsibilities. COVID has made that so much worse, coupled with the additional threats to the person I care for’s health.
Female, London

Young women and BAME women are hit particularly hard

In this discussion, we must also acknowledge the intersection of gender and age, as young women are particularly hit hard, being 25% more likely to be furloughed and 87% more likely to lose their job. While this reflects the sectors they work in, with 4 in 10 young women having worked in retail or hospitality, it is still a stark reminder that all women have been impacted in different ways, and that again, the recovery must address these inequities. The unemployment rate for young women is 11.1%, compared to all women at 4.7%.

Gender pay gap

The impact of the pandemic on Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic women has also been a harsh reality over the last year. Before the pandemic, BAME women were dealing with high pay inequities, compared to BAME men as well as white women. Men earned a higher hourly median wage than women in all but three ethnic groups. But more troublingly, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women suffered from some of the lowest-pay rates of any ethnic group. The work and pay inequities that impact many BAME women have been exacerbated during the pandemic with stark results.

When polled, more than 4 in 10 BAME women said they would struggle to make ends meet over the next three months. In fact, according to the TUC, BAME women are twice as likely to be in low-paid work and occupations that expose them to a high risk of COVID-19 infections. Around one in eight BAME women are employed in insecure roles, compared with one in 16 white women and one in 18 white men. These positions are low paid, but also high risk. Workers in insecure work have a harder time accessing flexible working conditions that allow for childcare when nurseries are closed, in addition to a harder time self-isolating or shielding due to a lack of adequate sick pay. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. The stress it manifests can be seen in other aspects of their lives;

BAME women were more likely to report anxiety a result of having to go out to work during the coronavirus pandemic (65.1%), and also reported struggling to cope with all the different demands on their time (45.4%). BAME women were the most likely to report that they were struggling to balance paid work and caring for their children with all the competing demands, and to go to the shops or do other tasks. This pandemic has highlighted how people living in poverty or in precarious situations have been impacted badly. It is essential that we continue to learn how the pandemic affects women differently, and the about the intersection of ethnicity and gender. We cannot allow any woman to be held back during the recovery.

A true recovery for all is essential to stop the rising tide of poverty after the pandemic

Thankfully at the beginning of the pandemic, the Government recognised that it was important to act before more people were pulled into poverty. By implementing the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, people on Universal Credit have been kept afloat during the pandemic. It also highlights how essential it is to keep the lifeline to families and women who have faced job and income loss. We must not whip away this important support in six months, at a time that will restrict them further and risk trapping them in poverty. A reduction of Universal Credit at this time would disproportionately impact single mothers, and we cannot allow these women to fall even deeper into poverty.

This is a bad choice for the Government to consider making. Everything they do seems to be on a temporary basis and we don’t live on a temporary basis. We live permanently. We need commitment and we need certainty. “There are a lot of single parents home-schooling their children and they don’t have broadband or devices. They aren’t in the position to purchase something that would therefore be a contract, and they aren’t guaranteed to have this uplift after six months. There are many more job losses still to come. And even when we have the vaccine delivered to everybody there’s still uncertainty about home-schooling, you know, it may be on and off for years to come so the uplift certainly needs to be permanent for once.
Female, Northern Ireland

However, this is a temporary solution to alleviating poverty in the UK. In addition to making the lifeline permanent:

  • We need a focus on creating new, good quality jobs across the country.
  • We must tackle barriers holding people back from the jobs market such as issues with transport, unaffordable childcare and lack of flexible work.

We cannot allow another International Women’s Day pass with more women gripped by poverty. It is urgent to act immediately, so that we can continue our previous progress towards gender equality.