One year on: New Close the Gap research highlights the impact of COVID-19 on women’s employment

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on Scotland’s economy. Women’s labour market participation has been impacted in multiple and specific ways by sector shutdowns, furlough, job losses and increases in the amount of unpaid work, particularly childcare and care.

Close the Gap’s new research, One Year On: The impact of COVID-19 on women’s employment in Scotland uses labour market data, statistics relating to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and Scottish Government labour market analysis to assess how COVID-19 has impacted women’s employment and labour market equality over the last 12 months.

It shows that women’s employment continues to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 job disruption in a number of key ways. In particular, women are more likely to have been furloughed since July 2020 and two female-dominated sectors, retail and hospitality, continue to have the highest rates of furlough. This puts women at greater risk of redundancy in the longer-term. Women’s financial security is therefore more likely to have been impacted by receiving only 80% of their salary over a prolonged period of time.

Young women have been particularly affected by furlough, and young women are more likely to have been furloughed than young men. Around four in ten female workers aged under 18 were furloughed in January 2021 (39%), signifying the risk that the pandemic exacerbates young women’s inequality in the labour market.

Key findings from Close the Gap’s One Year On research include:

  • In Scotland, women have accounted for the majority of furloughed staff since July 2020.
  • Occupational segregation puts women at particular risk of furlough, and redundancy over the course of the crisis. In January 2021, retail and hospitality account for just under half (44.5%) of furloughed employments. Women’s concentration in low-paid service sectors thus puts them at heightened risk of lost hours and earnings.
  • Younger workers are at particular risk of furlough, and young women are more likely to be furloughed than their male counterparts. In January 2021, UK-level data shows that 39% of eligible female workers aged under 18 were furloughed, compared to 29% of male workers of the same age group. 23% of female workers aged 18 to 24 were furloughed, compared to 19% of men.
  • Women’s unemployment rose twice as fast as men’s at the start of lockdown (March to May 2020).
  • There has been a sharp increase in women working full-time in Scotland over the course of the crisis. From October to December 2020, 26,000 more women were working full-time than the same period in 2019 and 22,000 fewer women were working part-time.
  • Women accounted for only 33% of Self-Employment Income Support Scheme claims in Scotland received by 31st January 2021.
  • Across the UK, the value of claims made by men (£4.8bn) to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme amounts to over three times the value of women’s claims (£1.4bn).

COVID-19 job disruption is also having a disproportionate impact on different groups of women, including low-paid women, BME women, disabled women and young women. The crisis therefore has the potential to cement labour market inequality for women who already face multiple barriers to good quality employment. However, there is a lack of intersectional labour market data to comprehensively demonstrate these impacts, particularly for BME and disabled women.

Pre-existing gendered patterns of unpaid work and care have only been exacerbated by the current crisis, particularly during periods of school and nursery closures. Increasing unpaid caring responsibilities have impacted women’s ability to do paid work, threatening women’s financial security and pushing some women into further and deeper poverty.

Of course, 12 months of data provides only a limited picture of the impact of COVID-19 job disruption on women’s employment, as the impact of the pandemic on Scotland’s labour market is expected to be far-reaching and long-term. Scottish Government analysis noted that it took eight years for unemployment in Scotland to return to pre-crisis levels after the global financial crisis in 2008, and this recession is expected to be deeper and more prolonged. Research from previous recessions also shows that women’s employment is more likely to be impacted over the course of the crisis. The full effects of the crisis on women’s labour market equality, therefore, will only become clear in the coming months and years.

Robust equalities data is crucial to effective policy responses. The economic, social and labour market impacts of the pandemic have made improving the range of gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data used to inform policymaking even more critical. As women and men had different levels of economic wellbeing before COVID-19, that have subsequently been deepened by the crisis, the principle of equality and non-discrimination must be core to the economic recovery.

In One Year On, we make a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland across the design of skills interventions; the collection of robust equalities data; and substantive action on occupational segregation. Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Gather intersectional gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data for all skills programmes and interventions to ensure that gender equality is core to the evaluation and monitoring of new programmes.
  • Ensure the Scottish Government’s commitments on achieving women’s labour market equality are integrated into the development and implementation of the Centre for Workplace Transformation.
  • Prioritise action on occupational segregation in policymaking to promote green jobs, ensuring that new investment does not disproportionately benefit men and “men’s jobs”.
  • Ensure that the key performance indicators for the Young Person's Guarantee measure occupational segregation in opportunities and in sectors which engage with the initiative.
  • Build on and improve the range of gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data used to develop skills planning policy, including improving gender analysis and sex-disaggregated data in the data matrix, Regional Skills Assessments and Skills Investment Plans.

One year on from the first lockdown, our research shows that women’s employment has been disproportionately impacted by the crisis in a multitude of ways. Without action to promote a gendered economic recovery, the labour market implications of the crisis will only exacerbate women’s socioeconomic inequality.

You can read the full research here.

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