On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, it has become apparent that a gender equality crisis is on the rise. The coronavirus pandemic is set to reverse years of progress fought for by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and Malala Yousafzai. Speaking to the Guardian, Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society claimed that, unless the Government intervenes to avert it, “women’s workplace equality will have been set back decades” – an observation with which one can only agree.
Last week, almost a year after these initial concerns were raised, the Women and Equalities Committee released their ‘Unequal Impact? Coronavirus and the Gender Economic Impact’ report. This focused on the economic and social repercussions of the current pandemic and the government’s preventative measures on gender equality. Their findings were staggering. The current economic support policies are “skewed towards men” and gender disparities have been ignored. We are turning the clock back and welcoming a second equality crisis if no action is taken.
Women have found themselves facing inequalities both in the workplace and in their domestic lives, with the prejudice against new mothers proving to be particularly damaging.
Dr Sara Reis, Head of Research and Policy at the UK Women’s Budget Group, expressed her concerns regarding the gender wage gap as “women started this crisis from a position of economic disadvantage”. The inevitable impact on both women’s earnings and employment prospects will widen existing gender inequalities, something which has been overlooked by the government when introducing lockdown restrictions. They are also far more likely to be furloughed by their place of employment, with Dr Wanda Wyporska stating 86% of cuts made in the last 12 months fell on women.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education reported mothers were 47% more likely to have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Speaking to BBC News, mother of two Sara said she feels lost and empty as she, like many others, may now be forced to rely on benefits after being made redundant. The impact of the pandemic and these subsequent restrictions have been devastating. Many mothers have been left financially vulnerable as they are deemed to be less reliable, a statement which could not be further from the truth.
Refuge, a charity which runs a domestic abuse helpline within the United Kingdom, has also recorded a ten-fold increase in visits to its website since March last year. These growing numbers further highlight the distressing impact the current and previous measures have had on gender equality, with two-thirds of survivors responding to a Women’s Aid survey last April stating violence has severely escalated during the pandemic.
So, how can we advertise the ever-looming gender equality crisis? Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes, suggests more work must be done to tackle these inequalities, particularly within male-dominated sectors. This should include employment law changes to aid flexible working for mothers who have felt the impact of the pandemic greatly. The report also advocates for increased economic support and the extending of redundancy protection for new mothers, two preventative measures which could help minimize this ever-growing equality gap.
Yet, with the current issues facing the government in the hospitality, education, and healthcare sectors, can we truly expect immediate action, or will we be forced to watch as decades of progress is undone?