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Challenges for working women during the pandemic

The Work and Equalities Institute has produced a briefing note for the GM (Greater Manchester) 4Women’s Employment Action Group which lays bare the challenges for working women in the wake of the pandemic.

Authors Professor Jill Rubery, Director of the Institute, and PGR researchers Eva Herman, Abbie Winton and Caitlin Schmid, show how the pandemic has created major challenges for women. Not only were women more likely to be in the frontline of key services such as health and social care, but also more at risk of redundancy and long term furlough due to the high number of women who work in sectors such as retail and hospitality.

First lockdown

In the first lockdown they say women had fairly equal access with men to furlough schemes, but self-employed women were more likely than men to be excluded from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and also less likely to feel comfortable with taking a Bounce Back Loan. There was also no specific paid parental leave scheme for those who had to support home schooling, unlike in the majority of EU member states.

Says Professor Rubery: “In the UK little to no protection has been provided to those who needed to take time off work to look after children who were self-isolating. Women are likely to be disproportionately impacted by this lack of support as they still bear a greater amount of the childcare load, with single parents likely to be most severely impacted.”

Social Care

Social care is highly reliant on women's work, with women accounting for 71% of the workforce, and throughout the pandemic these workers were crucial with only 7% being furloughed.

However pay for social care workers across GM is low with the majority of private sector employers paying below the real Living Wage. Low pay meant workers had no financial safety net and this was particularly problematic if they had to be off with Covid-19.

Adds Rubery: “Paying the real Living Wage would be beneficial for workers, but funding provided by local authorities for social care is below what is needed for employers to do this, making this is a hard ask. This situation is unlikely to change without more national government support as the Local Government Association has noted that Covid-19 has added a further £10bn to local authority costs.”

Future prospects

She adds that as we recover from the pandemic, support for women’s employment – both access to employment and quality of work – will be more important than ever.

“It is vital that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority continues to promote its Good Employment Charter designed to ensure that there is a decent minimum standard of employment within Greater Manchester. We also need action to support women’s access to employment and that means developing and rebuilding childcare provision and paying more attention to problems of inequalities of access experienced by specific groups of women – by ethnicity, age, location and disability and health.

“The changing patterns of employment post Covid also mean that we need to develop new opportunities to retraining and skills development, enabling women to move out of sectors that may never fully recover from Covid. Finally, but by no means least, we need support for women in self-employment too.”

GM labour market

The briefing also looked at how women were faring in the wider GM labour market just before the pandemic. This found that although women improved their access to paid work over the year 2019/20 with the share of women in employment rising to nearly 69%, the employment rate for men was still nearly 78%. By April 2020 the gender pay gap in GM had also shrunk to 9.1%, but this was more due to men’s low earnings than to a rise in women’s earnings.

*Professor Rubery is leader of the GM4women’s employment action group and the PGR researchers are also members of the group.