By Dr Helen Norman,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change
Covid-19 is the worst public health crisis for a generation that it is fast becoming an economic crisis with gendered impacts. Although men make up three quarters of coronavirus critical care patients, women are at greater risk of contagion due to their higher concentration in frontline work. Of the ‘key workers’ identified by the UK government as essential to the provision of services during the pandemic, 60% are women.
The labour market
Women are more exposed to the risk of redundancy and low pay because of their precarious position on the labour market. Not only do women make up the majority of the UK’s low paid earners, they also comprise a higher proportion of those in part-time employment (74%), part-time self-employment (59%), temporary employment (54%) and on zero-hours contracts (54%). Women and low paid earners have also been some of the hardest hit by the shutdown of businesses. Women are around a third more likely to work in a sector that has now shut down with one in six (17%) female employees working in such sectors compared to one in seven (13%) of their male counterparts.
Care and domestic work
Women already do twice as much unpaid work at home so are more likely to assume the burden of additional caring responsibilities that has resulted from the closure of schools and nurseries. This is perpetuated by a persistent gender pay gap, which creates a financial logic for the second earner within a couple (usually the women) to reduce or exit paid work, as well as prevalent norms and beliefs about gender roles. Lone parents (90% of whom are women) are likely to find it even more difficult to reconcile work and care, particularly as access to informal networks of friends and family is restricted.
How has the government responded?
A ‘furlough’ salary retention scheme was introduced on 11 March, which will help some but not all – such as the self-employed. It is not possible to request furlough on a part-time basis – an option that would help both parents (within a two-parent household) to divide paid and unpaid work more equally. Where there is a choice, it makes more financial sense for the lower earner (i.e. usually the woman in a two-parent, opposite sex household) to request furlough so that the higher earner (i.e. usually the man) can continue to work. This has the potential to damage women’s earnings and career progression. The furlough scheme also risks pushing many lone parents and low paid earners into poverty because of the further reduction in pay. 45% of lone parents already live in poverty in the UK.
There is no right to be furloughed – both employer and employee have to agree. The recent surge in claims to Universal Credit may suggest that some employers are opting to make people redundant rather than furlough them, or they are reducing hours (and therefore income), which may force people who are in work to make a claim. From 16 March to the end of April, over 1.8 million people applied to Universal Credit – six times the usual claimant rate. This data is not sex disaggregated but women are more reliant on social security payments because of their disproportionate share of unpaid care and precarious position on the labour market.
What are the next steps?
It is important to consider the different economic positions of women and men in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the specific challenges that women face such as higher rates of poverty, the disproportionate load of unpaid domestic work and care and the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse.
The Women’s Budget Group rightly calls for a gender-sensitive approach to the crisis that also gives consideration to other marginalised groups such as the disabled and those already suffering race and ethnicity-based inequalities. It is positive that the Women and Equalities Committee have called an inquiry into the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 and the measures to tackle it are having on women and other marginalised groups. However, a more radical reassessment of how ‘low skilled’ work is defined and valued is needed, alongside a review of the systemic undervaluation of so-called ‘women’s work’ – such as cleaning and caring – which are critical jobs that continue to be undervalued and under paid.