The Covid-19 pandemic risks setting the effort to get more mothers into the workplace back by 20 years, the head of one of the UK’s leading women’s rights charities has warned.
Women are often forced to choose between flexibility and job security in a bid to meet their caring responsibilities, making them “dispensable”, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive said.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Sam Smethers said: “If you look back at the last 20 years the big increases in labour market participation have been amongst mothers and single parents in particular.
“What we are seeing now is that that trend is reversed, so unless we correct that, unless we get it back on track, we will literally have a significant step backwards.”
Research by PwC published last month found 78% of those who have already lost their jobs as a result of the virus are women.
“Women are over-represented in low-paid work and precarious work,” Ms Smethers said.
“They’re people who are very ‘dispensable’ or otherwise easy to get rid of because they are on zero hours or minimum hours contracts.”
The Fawcett Society also fears the collapse in childcare infrastructure – with more than 10,000 providers expected to go bust due to Covid-19 – could also force some mothers out of the workforce.
Campaigners are now calling for the Government to ensure experts in gender and health crises are involved in the process of rebooting the economy in the wake of the shutdown.
Dr Sophie Harman, professor of International Politics at Queen Mary’s University, said the pandemic could prove “catastrophic” for women in Britain.
“It is sometimes during emergencies that the most egregious discriminatory practices happen because you can’t spot them,” she said.
“They are justified under ‘well, we were just moving quickly’ and so that’s my concern of the wider ripple effect (of the pandemic).”
Dr Harman, who has worked extensively in the field of healthcare, said assumptions made by the UK Government were not dissimilar to those made by African countries during the HIV and Ebola crises.
“The assumption from the outbreak and the Government’s plan was that women would just pick up the load of the care burden,” she said.
“The domestic roles are increased, their livelihoods are at risk and they are also involved in measures to protect people against the spread of the outbreak.”
The pandemic has underscored how precarious working conditions are for so many frontline and key workers who have been vital in helping the UK get through the crisis.
Some social care staff, of whom 83% are women, admitted being too afraid to be tested for the virus are not entitled to sick pay and would have to self-isolate for two weeks with no income.
“I think any decent government looking at that would say that it is absolutely outrageous that care workers are in that position,” Ms Smethers said.
“The vulnerability and insecurity that we have baked into the system actually undermines everybody’s safety and security.”
The Fawcett Society wants to see the UK address “the cost of poverty” and implement reforms such as the real living wage and an increase in child benefit in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“I think this crisis has shown that we all have a stake in ensuring that the poorest amongst us in society are better cared for and better supported than they have been,” she said.