Covid and tech liable to reverse progress on gender equality in British workplace

MPs say the pandemic has set back important gains and call for 'feminist economics' to lead recovery

Parliamentarians have told the British government that it must introduce policies to ensure employees at risk, most notably women, are not excluded by technological advances.

The work and pensions committee has called for a comprehensive, long-term strategy on how to address the repercussions of rapid change in work practices brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The committee says the UK is facing the prospect of a rapid churn between new jobs and loss of existing roles in a process likely to be uneven across sectors, exacerbating inequalities.

Stephen Timms, the chairman, said that the government must plan now to avoid those in danger – women, younger people, the disabled and those from some ethnic minorities – “being left behind”.

“Deep-seated trends were already driving labour market inequalities,” Mr Timms said. “The pandemic has hit fast-forward on them.

"As we emerge, automation and new technologies will continue to transform both how people work and the skills they need to succeed.”

Experts and campaigners have raised women's demands for more gender-focused planning and flexible working arrangements when Britain's Covid-19 restrictions are entirely removed.

Where no action is taken to address the pandemic's impact on women in the workforce then global GDP growth will be $1 trillion lower by 2030. Radkiha Chadwick

Radikha Chadwick, a partner at the McKinsey and Company consultancy, said the accelerated adoption of hybrid working during the pandemic should remain a viable option.

"People who work more flexibly, particularly if they have care needs, are normally disproportionately women so when an organisation normalises remote or hybrid working they help women," Ms Chadwick told a panel on the future of work at this month's CogX Festival.

Some companies are already changing their policies to give employees long-term flexible working rights.

The UK government is considering new legislation to make working from home the default option by giving employees the right to request it.

Employers have been asked to build in protection to ensure women are not disadvantaged. For example the shift to working at home could make gender inequality worse if women become less visible to employers.

What is the cost of gender imbalance in Britain's workforce?

The gender-skewed effects of lockdowns, at home and work, have leaned heavily against women.

While more men have died from the virus, women have suffered because of some of the policies introduced to prevent disease transmission.

From their increased exposure to frontline jobs – 77 per cent of "high-risk" jobs in the UK were held by women – to their vulnerable status on part-time or zero-hour contracts, and the "double shifts" working mothers were putting in at home, women have borne the bulk of the pandemic's burdens.

Ms Chadwick, who specialises in public sector practice, said the economic fallout of neglecting women’s needs would be significant.

“In a gender-regressive scenario where no action is taken to address the pandemic’s impact on women in the workforce, then global GDP growth will be $1 trillion lower by 2030, assuming that women’s unemployment tracks that of men,” she said.

If the situation deteriorates and more women leave the labour market for a longer time, the global effects will be even greater.

“The knock-on factors of this dire economic projection include an increase in gender-based violence, school drop-out rates, child marriage and a worsening economic spiral,” Ms Chadwick said.

After steady progress over the past decade, experts warn that female economic empowerment is at risk of a rapid reversal because of Covid-19.

In this year's Women at Work report, consultancy PwC warned that OECD countries must progress towards gender equality at twice its historical rate for a complete economic recovery from the pandemic by 2030.


Working mothers: more responsibility, less help

Research by McKinsey last year revealed that despite accounting for only 39 per cent of the UK workforce, women made up 54 per cent of job losses related to Covid-19, making them nearly twice as likely to lose their jobs than men.

Fears of a massive "she-cession" might be misplaced, though, as new data published by the Resolution Foundation think tank showed women's average working hours took less of a hit than men's since the outbreak.

The research showed that full-time female employment had actually increased over the past year, yet working mothers continue to be affected by the gender divide.

In the first four months of this year, Britain lost 2,000 childcare providers.

Far more public and social centres are struggling to stay open, meaning that inevitably working parents, particularly mothers, will struggle as well.

When schools and offices shut last year, the "invisible work" of women became more apparent, with mothers reportedly three times more likely to take on most of the childcare and household duties as fathers.

Increased awareness might be a welcomed by-product but without appropriate resources and political action, women will continue to shoulder the double shift.

For gender-sensitive policies to be implemented, the UK needs a more equal balance of women and men in policy decisions, feminist activist Sophie Walker told the CogX event.

The founder of the Women’s Equality Party criticised the government for missing “every opportunity” to factor women’s needs into pandemic planning.

Gender was referred to in only 13 out of 73 meetings held in 2020 by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, LSE researchers said.

In the few instances where explicit reference was made to gender, all related to biological sex and physical risks of the virus, they said in the Why we Need a Gender Advisor on SAGE report.

The lack of female representation is not just a failing of the UK.

The UN Development Programme says men outnumber women three to one across Covid-19 government task forces around the world.

After the pandemic: why gender needs to be part of the plans

UN Women expects 47 million more females will fall below the poverty line if action is not taken to protect women from the economic fallout.

Its research found that only one in eight countries have effective measures in place to protect women.

Last year UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a "new deal" to set the country on a path of economic recovery under the theme Build Build Build.

But the Women’s Equality Committee expressed its concern that the government’s priorities for recovery were “heavily gendered in nature”.

DUDLEY, ENGLAND - JUNE 30: Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech during his visit to Dudley College of Technology on June 30, 2020 in Dudley, England. Johnson said Britain needed the type of massive economic response that US president Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilised to deal with the Great Depression. He has earmarked £1 billion ($1.2 billion) for school repairs and a further £4 billion for "shovel-ready" projects that cover everything for road maintenance to public transport. (Photo by Paul Ellis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In its report, Unequal Impact? Coronavirus and the Gendered Economic Impact, one professor criticised the "build rhetoric" for its association with construction, an industry historically filled by men.

The study showed a “care-led” recovery could create more than two million jobs for men and women.

Echoing the committee’s sentiments, Ms Walker advocated for more feminist economics that invest in social and health care.

The future of flexible working: a right or an option?

As Britain inches towards "Freedom Day" with bated breath, there is some trepidation as to what is in store.

The question on many women’s minds will be whether there will be a repeat of the gender-related shortcomings in planning for the post-pandemic recovery.

Ms Chadwick said there was a good opportunity to use the experience of a difficult past year and data collated to address the needs of women at work.

“The good news is that if we take action now we estimate that we could add $13tn to the global economy by 2030,” said the consultant, who advises governments and agencies across Europe.

Ms Chadwick said hybrid working was “here to stay” so companies should be driving even more changes towards gender equality at work.

“What would inspire me is to see businesses and political leaders work together and take some bold action that shows a genuine desire to move the needle,” she said.