Today is equal pay day, our annual opportunity to highlight Britain’s enduring gender pay gap while celebrating the fact that it has been narrowing. Sadly, the impact of Covid-19 on women in the economy means this year feels more like a call to arms than a celebration.
First, the positives. Women’s role in the economy has undergone a wholesale transformation since the 1970s. There are more women in work today than ever before, and more balancing a career and a family too. This change has been quick enough that we notice the difference, but slow enough that we risk taking it for granted.
This progress was hard won, and it didn’t happen by accident. The last Labour government radically improved support for women in their work and family lives. It proved what can be done when the pollical will is there.
But Covid-19 has exposed how many problems remain. Women are still more likely to be stuck in low-paid work and still grappling with a parenthood pay gap. Single-parent families – 90% of whom are women – are more likely to be hit by working poverty than couples. The gloomy economic outlook for the UK and its worsening inequalities risk wiping out the economic progress made by women in recent decades.
Women have borne the burden of this crisis from its outset. They are more likely to work in shut-down sectors, more women than men are on furlough across almost every age group, and mothers are more likely to have quit or lost their job. According to research by the TUC, black and minority ethnic women – who are more likely to be in lower paid, insecure work in the first place – have been hit particularly hard.
Working from home has increased household and family duties as well. The IFS found that mums have less time to do their paid job than dads and were more likely to be interrupted. More women than men have left work since March, yet they are also facing increased domestic responsibilities. The Government’s decision to allow companies not to report their gender pay gap this year also makes it hard to know what progress is being made on that front.
Government decisions reveal priorities. Protecting jobs by extending furlough was the right thing to do, enabling us to put public health first and stave off unemployment. But we need a proper strategy if the recovery is to offer better chances for everyone. Ministers have the power to change things – they must use it to make sure our economy works better for women as we come out of the pandemic.
They can start by making sure our economy works better for women. Difficult and essential work, like care, is predominantly carried out by women – but too often this is poorly-paid, and insecure. Valuing these jobs properly would lift women out of working poverty, and reduce the gender pay gap. With unemployment currently rising, and technology changing the nature of work, we also need to make sure women have the skills and training to succeed in the jobs of the future.
The challenges of balancing work and home life have sadly often been tougher for women than men, but lockdown has made it so much worse. Mothers need affordable childcare that makes work worthwhile, but with thousands of childcare providers at risk of going under the options for working parents are increasingly limited. Affordable childcare is good for families and good for the economy, but it is also a vital part of our national infrastructure – every bit as important as roads and railways.
Finally, we need to make our social security system fit for purpose. The removal of the minimum income floor remains temporary. The two-child limit for claiming Universal Credit means families struggling still don’t receive the support they need. With the possibility of further cuts to social security ahead, families risk losing a lifeline at the worst possible time. When so many people face financial insecurity, those who do the right thing shouldn’t be held back by Britain’s broken safety net.
Recent news of potential vaccines has brought light at the end of the tunnel, and real hope that before long this pandemic will be behind us. But if half the population still don’t get an equal shot when we emerge from this crisis, the whole country will continue to suffer. The first step is protecting public health, but the second must be to address the long-term challenges that Equal Pay Day represents.
If we don’t get a grip on the challenges of today, yesterday’s progress will be lost. And as always, women will pay the heaviest price.
This article was published in the Independent.