The vaccine might offer a way out of the pandemic, but it won’t repair our fractured society. After a year when we have seen progress towards women’s equality undermined, we needed a Budget that would ensure a sustainable and equal recovery.
Sadly, this year’s fell short of what was needed. As with previous government announcements over the last year, the needs of women have been sidelined.
When lockdown first began last year, the implications for women were instant: over 36% of young women employed in shutdown sectors like hospitality, leisure and tourism. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing labour market shock, young women were already facing a gender earnings gap(32.8% for 18-21 age group and 19% for 22-29 age group), discrimination and sexual harassment. The lockdown hit young women particularly hard – overall, women were more likely to be furloughed, taking a 20% pay cut, in 72% of parliament constituencies across the UK.
At home, women across England saw a rise in unpaid work as schools and nurseries closed. Lack of available support has meant an increased amount of unpaid work and multitasking duties, severely impacting women’s time for paid work. Consequently, 46% of mothers being made redundant said that lack of childcare was a factor in their selection for redundancy.
We needed a Budget that would take immediate action to mitigate the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on different groups on women. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we got.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s mental health too. Mothers are facing the brunt of increased workload with twice as many reporting they would have to take time off with no pay due to school closures or a sick child. Some 51% of single parents are also reporting to have depression, bad nerves and anxiety (compared to 27% of couple parents).
At the same time domestic abuse cases rose and cases of femicide as a result of domestic abuse more than doubled since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is all to say we needed a Budget that would take immediate action to mitigate the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on different groups on women. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we got.
The Chancellor extended the furlough scheme until September, which will protect many jobs in the short term. However, many of those currently furloughed are likely to be worrying if they will have a job once the scheme ends. Women have been furloughed in greater numbers than men during the pandemic, and the gender furlough gap is higher for younger womenthan older women. This isn’t surprising when you consider the sectors that women are more likely to work in.
The Chancellor also extended Universal Credit for another six months. Although this is welcome, it is only a short-term fix that risks pushing families into debt and undermining the recovery. The government clearly recognises that UC is not enough to live on at the moment – benefit levels in the UK have been cut over the past ten years, and even with this uplift to UC they are still low compared to other countries. As our research with the Runnymede Trust showed, these cuts disproportionately impacted Black and minority ethnic women.
The government clearly recognises that UC is not enough to live on at the moment.
There was nothing in the Budget to address the problems with statutory sick pay (SSP). At the moment, WBG calculations find that 15.5% of women and 10.6% of men do not earn enough to qualify for SSP. The low level of SSP was always unjust – during a pandemic it is not only bad for individuals, but also disastrous for public health. There have been widespread reports of key workers who felt they had no choice but to continue to work when they were ill, or using up annual leave, because they couldn’t afford to self-isolate. And we know that take up of community testing has been low in the poorest areas, again because people fear a positive result would mean they had to self isolate and be left unable to pay rent or bills.
Nor was there anything in the budget to address the crisis in the care sector. Women are more likely to need care as adults, more likely to work in the care sector, and more likely to be the ones who have to provide unpaid care if care services are not available. Investment in care would not only be good for these women, it would create much needed jobs. Our research shows investment in the care sector could create 2.7 times as many jobs as investment in construction. So why isn’t care at the heart of recovery plans?
The Chancellor did announce some additional money for the violence against women sector. But the £19 million is nowhere near the £393 million, including £173 million for refuges that Women’s Aid estimate is needed to provide sufficient funding for a ‘safe and sustainable’ national network of women’s domestic abuse services.
Over the past year we’ve not only seen women suffering the worst economic and social impacts of Covid. Now the government appears to have forgotten about women altogether.
Ebyan Abdirahman works with the Women’s Budget Group