Government has ‘repeatedly failed’ women in Covid response, MPs warn

Damning report says ministers risk ‘turning back the clock’ on gender equality as women are potentially pushed out of the labour market

The government has repeatedly ignored the specific needs of women when crafting its coronavirus support packages, a group of MPs have said, leading to women experiencing a disproportionate economic impact from the pandemic.

A report from the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) found both the job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) overlooked the existing inequalities women faced in the labour market and in their caring responsibilities, and that the government's priorities for recovery were “heavily gendered in nature”, with investment plans skewed toward male-dominated sectors such as construction.

The WEC added that in the industries worst hit by lockdown measures, such as hospitality and beauty, women have been overrepresented, and research has found the majority of childcare and homeschooling responsibilities have fallen on women during the pandemic, regardless of whether or not they were in employment.

Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and chair of the WEC, 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.”

She said the “passive approach” to gender equality was “not enough” and that, for many women, the pandemic has made existing problems worse.

Commenting on the findings, Baroness Berridge, minister for women, said the government had provided an “unprecedented offer of support, which includes help for the sectors [women] are more likely to be employed in, protection for female-led start-ups and new childcare support”.

“We understand it’s been a very difficult time for parents with childcare responsibilities and that is why we have introduced flexible furlough agreements and have extended the furlough scheme through to April, supporting employees who are struggling to work because of childcare,” said Berridge.

“We also recognise that it is vital that children can return to school to lift some of the weight off parents across the country, which is why we will prioritise opening schools when it is safe to do so.” 

Responding to the findings, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said women had been put in an “impossible situation” during the pandemic and that too many working mothers were having to cut their hours or be forced to leave their jobs, because they were unable to manage.

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

The WEC also raised “grave concerns” about the evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic.

A survey of almost 20,000 pregnant women and mothers conducted by Pregnant Then Screwed in July 2020 found 15 per cent had been made redundant or expected to be in the next six months.

CEO and founder of the campaign group Joeli Brearley said that, throughout the pandemic, policy decisions had “repeatedly ignored the specific needs of women”.

“To make someone redundant not because of their ability, but because they have additional caring responsibilities as a result of school closures is outrageous, and it needs to stop,” she said. 

The report includes a slew of recommendations for the government, including greater redundancy protection for pregnant women; an equality impact assessment of the schemes (job retention and SEISS); and a review into the adequacy of and eligibility for statutory sick pay, as women are overrepresented among those who are not eligible.

It also calls for a review into childcare provision to provide support not only for working parents but those who are job seeking or retraining.

Duncan Brown, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies, said the committee’s frustration “rightly” came out in the report, notably because a lot of the legislation needed to protect women had already been drafted. This included the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill put forward by the committee’s former chair, Maria Miller; Stella Creasy’s extended equal pay bill to cover ethnicity and disability; and the promised employment bill acting on the recommendations made in the 2018 Good Work Plan.

“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,” said Brown. “Rather than just more information and equality road maps and plans.”

Nokes said the government needed to start actively analysing the equality impact of every policy, warning that it “risked turning back the clock” if it didn’t. “Our report sets out a package of 20 recommendations for change and a timescale. Taken together, these will go a long way towards tackling the problems and creating the more equal future that so many women – and men – want to see.”