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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; out of over 1 million “high risk, poverty pay” workers, 98% are women. In many of the sectors that face longer-term instability due to Covid-19 - retail, hospitality, tourism - women are overrepresented.
Meanwhile, as our public services are placed under unprecedented strain, women are picking up the slack with even more unpaid domestic and care work. 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. This has exacerbated the uneven burden of care, which exerts a toll on women’s mental health and threatens to undermine their economic prospects over the long-term, compounding the lack of recent progress in closing the gender pay gap before the pandemic.
At the most extreme, more women are now suffering from domestic violence - visits to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline website have increased by 950% since the onset of the pandemic. 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.
Badly designed policies worsen gender inequality. For example, pregnant women can be exposed to more risk or even excluded when their requirements are not considered.
Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, the Government is required to have due regard to equality. Some organisations have argued that the Government has fallen short of this obligation. The Women’s Budget Group, for instance, has argued that public bodies need to undertake meaningful 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.
Research from the Health Foundation finds that social care services in the UK have suffered from “decades of political neglect” and entered the Covid-19 pandemic in a fragmented, underfunded, and understaffed state. There is consensus on the need for “fundamental reform" to make the care system more resilient, expanding access to and increasing the quality of services.
Investing in public care services is also crucial for tackling gender inequality. Greater public care provision could relieve the burden on unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women - they make up 80% of the adult social care workforce. The action needed to tackle “stark recruitment and retention” challenges in care would improve pay and conditions for millions of women.
There is majority public support for extending the principles underlying the NHS to social care, making it free at the point of need and taxpayer-funded. Additionally, there is evidence that financialisation and marketisation have undermined care provision.
Closing gender inequality requires investment in systems of social infrastructure. These include healthcare and social care services. Raising carers’ pay would both increase the resilience of the care system and benefit its predominantly female employees. Increased provision of care would relieve the burden of unpaid care that currently falls on women.
It is also important to invest in these systems when tackling other crises, such as the climate and environment emergency. Often, calls for investment to build back better focus on physical infrastructure - transport and energy systems, housing and so on. Spending on social systems is rarely classed as ‘investment’, despite the investment-like returns to spending in these areas - reflecting a possible gender-bias in economic policy making. Health and social care can provide low carbon jobs and are essential to providing high standards of living and undoing inequalities.
According to ONS statistics women in full-time employment are paid 8.9% less on average per hour than their male counterparts. Looking at employees as a whole, women earned on average 17.3% less than men per hour. This is partly 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 key cause is the uneven burden of unpaid care work. This can limit women’s career opportunities in a variety of ways. The "maternity penalty" is a key example. This is the economic cost to mothers of taking on more unpaid child-rearing work, which inhibits their career progression and pressures them to take on more flexible, less senior, and less well-paid roles.
A variety of solutions could redress the gender pay gap. Increased transparency of pay and paths to promotion are intended to reduce the potential for pay discrimination.