‘Clock could be turned back on gender equality’ as economic recovery is planned

Vicky Shaw, PA Personal Finance Correspondent

The clock could be turned back on gender equality as plans for the economic recovery are made, MPs are warning.

Existing gender inequalities in the economy have been ignored and sometimes made worse by the policy response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Women and Equalities Committee.

Pregnant women and new mothers in particular may have faced discriminatory and potentially unlawful treatment, its report said.

The committee said the economic impact of coronavirus has affected men and women differently – because of existing economic inequalities, the over-representation of women in certain types of work, and Government actions.

Committee chair Caroline Nokes said: “We need to see more than good intentions and hoping for the best. The Government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back.”

It launched its inquiry to find out what can be done to improve and sustain equality.

The committee raised concerns that priorities for the recovery are skewed towards male-dominated sectors, with “build, build, build” rhetoric and images of high-vis jackets and hard hats.

It said witnesses at its inquiry had stressed the economic case for greater investment in the care sector, including childcare. The committee heard evidence that a “care-led” recovery could create vastly more jobs for women as well as significant jobs for men.

Women are traditionally under-represented in sectors that have been singled out for Government investment, such as science, technology, engineering, maths and construction, the committee said.

It said more must be done to tackle inequalities in representation and career progression in male-dominated sectors, so that women do not lose out as the economy recovers.

Initiatives such as the furlough scheme provide vital safety nets during the pandemic.

But the way measures are designed overlook specific and well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women, the report argued.

Women are often more likely to be on insecure employment contracts. Furloughed women have also been less likely than men to have received a discretionary top-up on their earnings from their employer, beyond Government subsidies, the report said.

The report recommends that schemes supporting employees and the self-employed should be subject to an equality impact assessment to better protect those who are already at a disadvantage.

Women with caring responsibilities also require targeted job search support, it said. It added that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must expand and tailor its offering for mothers seeking employment, to include retraining and re-skilling for jobs in the most viable sectors.

The explosion of home-working during the pandemic has brought new opportunities to improve gender inequality and make it easier for people to balance family responsibilities with their career.

To make it easier for people to work flexibly, the committee recommends that the Government amends the Flexible Working Regulations 2014, to remove a 26 weeks’ service threshold for employees to request flexible working arrangements.

The report said: “The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that it is unhelpful and unnecessary.”

The report also said: “We are gravely concerned by evidence detailing potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic.”

It added: “We urge the Government to introduce legislation in this Parliamentary session to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers.”

Concerns were raised about some employed pregnant women or those on maternity leave being forced to take unpaid leave; forced to start maternity leave early; being placed on sick leave rather than furloughed; or refused furlough because they have childcare responsibilities and are not deemed to be working – in contrast to male colleagues with children.

Ms Nokes said: “As the pandemic struck, the Government had to act quickly to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits.

“These have provided a vital safety net for millions of people. But it overlooked the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women.

“These are not a mystery, they are specific and well understood. And yet the Government has repeatedly failed to consider them. This passive approach to gender equality is not enough.

“And for many women it has made existing equality problems worse: in the support to self-employed people, to pregnant women and new mothers, to the professional childcare sector, and for women claiming benefits. And it risks doing the same in its plans for economic recovery.”

A TUC survey of 52,000 working mothers recently found that nine in 10 had experienced more anxiety and stress during the latest lockdowns.

Nearly three-quarters (71%) of those who had applied for furlough following the latest school closures had their requests turned down.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If ministers don’t act, women will be pushed out of the labour market. And that means women’s and children’s poverty will soar.

“Ministers must give all parents a temporary right to be furloughed now.

“And they must fix the UK’s lamentable support for working parents. That means giving all parents at least ten days’ paid parental leave each year, making real flexible working available to all, and funding childcare properly.

“Unless ministers strengthen rights and support for working parents, women’s equality risks being set back decades.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Throughout the pandemic this Government has done whatever it takes to protect lives and livelihoods, and will continue to do so. We are safeguarding people’s jobs and incomes with economic schemes worth over £200 billion, including the self employment income scheme for the 1.7 million self-employed women in the UK.

“Covid-19 is prompting a culture shift with more people than ever before working flexibly, and the Government wants to harness that as we recover. By doing so, we could see more equal sharing of care work by parents, and more flexibility from employers, enabling us to unleash the potential of everyone across the country.”

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