Reflections on: ‘Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact’, a new report by the Women and Equalities Committee

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10 Feb 2021

Duncan BrownDr Duncan Brown, Principal Associate

I was really pleased to give written and verbal evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee on behalf of IES, and the Committee has produced an excellent, well-argued and evidence-based report that has just been published here.  The Committee highlights that the pandemic has only worsened a pre-existing bad situation in which a set of factors in the labour market and government policy, or lack of it, have impacted more heavily on women; such as the lack of labour market protection and adequate social welfare for low paid workers who are predominantly women. So heavily impacted in fact, that with the increased pressures of caring and schooling during the pandemic being disproportionately taken by women, and the toll taken on female dominated keyworkers in sectors such as social care and retail, IES analysis shows that hundreds of thousands of them have dropped out of the labour market altogether, which does risk the feared return to a 1950s situation.

All the evidence suggests that addressing gender inequality in the labour market needs a wide ranging and sustained response by governments and employers across a full agenda of areas, and their 20 recommendations cover this well, ranging from better sick pay and welfare support to better employment protection in areas such as pregnancy and maternity. As they point out, expecting people to self-isolate and survive on £90 odd sick pay is bad enough but hundreds of thousands of part time women don’t even qualify for SSP as they earn below the lower earnings limit!

The Committee’s frustration comes out in the report and they are right. What they term the ‘passive’ approach of the government to equality does not even recognise the differentiated nature of the impact on women, never mind act to combat it. Actions such as suspending rather than delaying gender pay gap reporting last year encouraged employers to push the issues down their priorities too, like the government. It’s interesting that US secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen spoke in support of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package for the US economy as quoted in the FT on Monday: ‘We have people suffering, particularly low-wage workers and minorities, and through absolutely no fault of their own.’  Speaking on CBS News, Yellen also emphasised provisions in the rescue package to specifically help women, saying that paid family and medical leave and extra childcare payments would stop women having to leave their jobs to take care of children who were not in school.

Yet in the UK, look in the Winter Economic Plan or CJRS or Kickstarter scheme and the gendered impact issue isn’t even recognised. Why not encourage employers to recruit young women into traditionally male occupations with additional incentives in the Kickstarter plan for example? As the Committee says: ‘The design of these schemes overlooked - and in some respects continues to overlook - the specific and well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women.’ And: ‘More must be done to tackle gender inequalities in representation and career progression in these male-dominated sectors so that women do not lose out in the recovery’.

The second frustration is that a lot of the supporting evidence and indeed required draft legislation is already in the parliamentary domain, so this is not difficult to do in a busy legislative schedule. While we agree with the Committee that more information and analysis such as equality impact assessments are required, the key issue here is getting action now that millions of women need so urgently, rather than just more information and equality road maps and plans.

This is particularly the case in terms of the government’s 2018  Good Work Plan which promises amongst its 50 odd proposals adopted from Mathew Taylor’s 2017 report:

  • A right to flexible work rather than the existing right to request it.
  • Rights to request stable working hours after a minimum period in employment.
  • Tougher labour market enforcement against law-breaking employers and in supply chains as recommended in the new CIPD report which I co-authored for them.

Consultations have been held on a number of these issues already, but we still await signs of the promised Employment Bill which we understand is supposed to be progressing at least some of them. They would all have major benefits, especially for female workers. We also have had a gender equality roadmap set out by the government in 2018 which also has not been acted on. Really good then that the Committee recommends for example, ‘the government amend the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, to remove the 26-weeks’ service threshold for employees to request flexible working arrangements. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that it is unhelpful and unnecessary. (Paragraph 29)’. They also call for government to publish their employment bill by the end of June.

Other legislation which the pandemic has highlighted the need to address and the Committee supports, includes:

  • The Pregnancy and Maternity (redundancy protection) Bill, put forward as a private members’ bill recently by the Committee’s former chair Ms Maria Miller MP, vital for the government to support and enact as redundancy levels escalate.
  • Stella Creasey’s extended Equal Pay Act, covering for example gender pay reporting’s extension to cover ethnicity and disability – ‘we urge the government to support The Equal Pay (Implementation and Claims) Bill. (Paragraph 137)’ There have been growing calls for ethnicity and disability pay gap reporting. The unequal economic effects of the pandemic have demonstrated the imperative to introduce these measures. (Paragraph 141)’.
  • Improved childcare and family support to help stem the current wave of financially-induced closures of nurseries and childminder facilities. A number of research studies highlight financial and cultural reasons for the low take-up of shared parental leave by fathers, and the Committee could perhaps have gone further in supporting the need to introduce shared parental pay, as in Germany, and possibly additional requirements, such as the Swedish ‘use it or lose it’ approach, in order to encourage a greater sharing of parental duties: ‘The Committee supports reporting on parental leave policies in addition to gender gaps in furlough and redundancies for 2020/21 to supplement the information on pay and bonuses’.  
  • Better pay and conditions for keyworkers, for example in the care sector.

The Committee could perhaps have also gone further in recommending banning the discussion of current pay levels in recruitment interviews, which is now operating in many US states such as California - and appears already to be operating very effectively there to stop the importation of gender pay gaps from the external market.

I noted in my evidence that the Committee might also want to recommend that to celebrate a decade after the last major piece of equality legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, Parliament finally implements Section 106 of the Act which mandates political parties to publish diversity data for their candidate and MP selection processes!

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.