Coronavirus brings new focus to women’s continued workplace inequality

The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt by us all, with huge changes transpiring across our working lives and beyond. At this stage, coronavirus is not just a health crisis, but an economic crisis that will have long-term implications. The longer-term consequences will impact women’s equality by exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, particularly where our response is not well-gendered.

There are specific impacts for women as a result of their disproportionate responsibility for care; women’s concentration in low-paid work and dominance in frontline roles; women’s experience of domestic abuse; and the failure of social security to meet women’s needs.

Women comprise the majority of frontline workers, and have increased exposure to COVID-19

Most of the key worker jobs identified by the Scottish and UK Governments are female-dominated roles, including supermarket workers, nurses, carers, teachers and childcare workers. These roles are predominantly done by women, and for this reason many of these jobs are systematically undervalued in the labour market and some jobs, such as those in social care, childcare and retail, are characterised by low-pay, and poor terms and conditions.

Women may have increased exposure to COVID-19 as a result of their position in the labour market, comprising the majority of frontline workers in social care, childcare and health care. This exposure is likely to be intensified by ongoing problems around access to essential PPE and testing, which is causing additional anxiety among frontline staff. The Royal College of Nursing have raised particular concerns around access to PPE for staff working outside of a hospital environment, including care home staff and district nurses. Social care staff, the vast majority of whom are women, are not being afforded sufficient focus in the provision of protective equipment. Additionally, PPE is often poor fitting for women, as it has been designed as standard to the sizes and needs of men and any alterations involve the same PPE, but smaller. A TUC survey previously showed that 57% of women found that their PPE sometimes or significantly hampered their work. Ultimately, inappropriate PPE can impact on a woman’s work and their safety, leaving them further exposed to Coronavirus.

Precarious work, self-employment and problems with Universal Credit are likely to increase women’s in-work poverty

Women’s employment is becoming increasingly precarious, and 55% of workers on zero-hour contracts are women. Women on these types of casualised and precarious contracts face difficulties reconciling variable hours with caring responsibilities and may not have access to statutory sick pay. Now that schools and nursery facilities have closed, women on these contracts will face particular challenges in accessing paid leave to care.

Zero-hour contracts are a feature of social care work, with three-quarters of third sector providers using these types of contracts. Zero-hour contracts negatively impact predictability of shifts, regular income, household budget management, women’s in-work poverty and children’s poverty, problems which are likely to be accentuated by the ongoing crisis. Women in precarious work face additional difficulties in managing variable hours with childcare responsibilities, and a lack of employment protections will hinder women’s ability to take paid leave.

Increasing numbers of female social care workers are self-employed via online platforms or apps which provide an agency function. The rise in women’s self-employment in social care and in other sectors has coincided with a rise in low-paid self-employment and thus the delay in providing support measures for self-employed people may push women into poverty, including many women who are working in the gig economy.

There is no gender-disaggregated data on the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which intends to cover 80% of staff costs of PAYE-registered employers who cannot meet staffing costs. However, there are complications around the definition of ‘employee’, with no coverage for gig economy workers. As nearly 75% of women in the gig economy earned less than the taxable threshold, any loss of earnings is likely to push women into poverty.

The Women’s Budget Group note that women hold 70% of jobs that are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay. Even where women are entitled to sick pay, the rate of pay is extremely low and insufficient. This puts women at even greater risk of poverty. As mothers earnings are a key factor in child poverty, this is likely to have long-term impacts on child poverty rates.

Social isolation policies increase women’s vulnerability to domestic abuse

One in five women in Scotland experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. With reports from China revealing that incidents of domestic abuse increased following the outbreak of the virus, particularly in lockdown, there is a risk that under self-isolation, perpetrators will further restrict their partners’ freedoms and threaten their safety. Financial dependence and poverty are both primary risk factors that diminish women’s and children’s resilience when experiencing domestic abuse and can prevent women from leaving an abusive partner. Increasing rates of poverty as a result of job losses, low rates of sick pay and unpaid leave, could increase women’s economic dependence and vulnerability to domestic abuse.

Women are likely to face additional childcare responsibilities

In line with existing patterns of care, women are likely to assume the burden of childcare responsibilities during this crisis, with potential impacts on women’s earnings, poverty and career prospects. Gendered assumptions around childcare responsibilities and the earnings gap between women and men mean that a higher proportion of women will have to take unpaid leave to care for children while schools and nurseries are closed and, where this is not possible, women may leave work altogether. Indeed, women are twice as likely to give up paid work in order to care. Women have reported having to use annual leave, sick leave and unpaid leave in order to care. This places women at greater risk of poverty, and also impacts their future ability to do childcare while in paid work.

Also, as women account for the majority of frontline workers, some of these workers may be forced to leave work or reduce their working hours due to the schools closing, which could result in services becoming even more stretched as women try to balance paid and unpaid care.

Lone parents, 90% of whom are women will be particularly impacted by school closures. Additional caring responsibilities will make it even more difficult for lone parents to either work from home or to find work, particularly when they will not have access to informal networks of family and friends to assist with care because of social distancing measures.

The lack of flexibility from employers, and access to unpaid leave, may force women into accessing the social security system, primarily Universal Credit, which is not designed to promote gender equality, or meet women’s needs. In particular, the single household payment will increase women’s economic dependence, and places increased risk on women experiencing domestic abuse.

Inflexible workplace cultures disproportionately impact women

Less than one in ten of those in the bottom half of earners say they can work from home. As women comprise the majority of low-paid workers, this makes it harder for them to protect their incomes in the face of social distancing measures. Women in the most at-risk sectors and occupations also have less to fall back on, being less likely to have savings, access to occupational pensions and being more likely to live in poverty.

The Resolution Foundation found that only 3% of employees in sales and customer service occupations and 19% of those in administrative and secretarial roles are able to work from home. This is compared to 34% of managers and senior officials. This has a profoundly gendered impact as women account for only 39% of managers, directors and senior officials in Scotland, but 77% of those employed in administrative and secretarial occupations and 66% of those in sales and customer service occupations.

As women are disproportionately responsible for care for children, sick people, older people and disabled people, the lack of quality flexible working makes it difficult for them to balance work with family life. However, the changes to working patterns necessitated by this ongoing crisis have highlighted that many more roles could have been done flexibly all along. However, it is not pre-determined that this new-found flexibility and changes to workplace cultures will be maintained once this crisis is resolved.

Our overriding concern is that, during periods of crisis, the Scottish Government’s focus on gender equality and the gender pay gap may slip. This, coupled with women’s under-representation in leadership roles, may lead to decision-making which further entrenches women’s inequality. Engender have highlighted that while old problems don’t go away when new ones come along, hasty responses to new problems can further entrench injustices and inequalities.

For example, the UK Government have made the decision to suspend employer gender pay gap reporting this year. This is likely to lead to further inaction on the causes of the gender pay gap by employers, and will ultimately compound women’s inequality in the labour market.

This global crisis has highlighted in exceptionally stark terms that increasing precarity in the labour market, diminishing worker’s rights, and social security changes have far-reaching implications. Women will bear the brunt of the negative consequences, whether as a result of the type of job they do, their access to unpaid leave, their additional caring responsibilities, their experiences of poverty and their increased vulnerability to domestic abuse. This crisis has once more called into question the systemic undervaluation of ‘women’s work’, such as cleaning and caring. The women doing these jobs, for low-pay and often in poor conditions, are now on the frontline in efforts to control this virus. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the urgent need to properly value “women’s work” in the health service and in social care, reprioritise social care services and make changes to ensure its proper funding in future, including increasing wages and improved terms and conditions for the workforce.

Overall, it’s vitally important that the responses to both the health and economic crises are gendered, actively considering the differing experiences of women and men across the development, design and delivery of policies and programmes. Otherwise, one of the key long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be to further cement gender inequality.

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