Whilst men have faced the greatest physical effects of the pandemic, making up the majority of deaths, hospitalisations and stays in ICU as a result of Covid-19, it is women who have suffered the greatest economic fallout. Women make up the majority of workers doing low-paid work in industries which have been hardest hit by opening restrictions such as hospitality and retail. Other female-dominated sectors in which many workers are self-employed, such as hair and beauty, were forced to close, whilst male-dominated sectors, such as construction and household trades, remained open. This has resulted in more women than men being furloughed and having to live off 80 per cent of their regular wage if their employer didn’t make up the shortfall of the Government’s furlough scheme.
Lack of appropriate childcare has also caused significant issues. School closures, combined with the societal expectation that it is mothers who are ultimately responsible for their children’s welfare and development, has led to job losses for women as they have found it impossible to balance both working and having children at home full-time. It is also important to recognise that the impact on women has not been equal across the board, with working-class women, women from ethnic minorities, younger women and working mothers suffering the most from job losses and reduced working hours.
The Government has been criticised for its approach to job retention and business support schemes as, whilst they have been successful on the whole, they did not take into account the differences between working men and women. An example of this is the Self Employed Income Support Scheme, recipients of which received payments on the basis of their profits in previous tax years. The Government decided to treat maternity leave as a sabbatical, resulting in thousands of women receiving reduced payments.
There has been similar criticism, including from the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, that the Government’s plans for rebuilding the economy and labour market after Covid do not sufficiently take into account the gendered landscape of business and employment in the UK. Instead, the government’s focus is on investing in male-dominated areas such as STEM and infrastructure projects. As such, it is important that the government invests in training programmes that specifically target women to join these industries.
Whilst it would be great to see more women move into competitive, well-paid sectors that have traditionally been the preserve of men, there will always be a need for workers in low-skilled positions. The pandemic has shown that many of these jobs are either essential for society to function or an important component of leading a well-rounded, enjoyable life and that should be reflected in the pay workers receive. The Government should therefore raise the minimum wage to the actual living wage, which would allow every adult to live a dignified life. This would have a particularly positive effect on women as there are twice the number of women than men in the bottom 10 per cent of earners in the UK.
The continuation and expansion of working from home that increased significantly during lockdowns should also be encouraged. Working mothers would be the main beneficiaries as childcare responsibilities mean women are more often restricted by location than men are when looking for work.
The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone regardless of sex, race, class or age but it is undeniable that not everyone has been affected equally and being white, male, middle-class or middle-aged has had certain insulating effects. The Government must be proactive if sex inequality, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic but was very much present before it, is to decrease.