26 May 2021
How can the UK government "build back better" for women after Covid-19?
Baroness Nicky Morgan
Government and employers must ensure that women don’t bear the brunt of the economic shock from the pandemic
Essays on equality – Covid-19: the road to a gender-equal recovery
Read the essay collection
At the start of 2020, and under the Conservative government, the rate of women in employment in the UK had reached a record high of 72.4 per cent. As a former Minister for Women and Equalities, I know just how much hard work went into achieving that target and how getting there required a multi-layered approach.
Despite the highly successful furlough scheme, we already know that the rate of unemployment has increased as part of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK’s female employment rate had fallen to 71.8 per cent by the end of 2020 and we know that more women were furloughed than men. This is because many of the roles which were furloughed were in sectors where more women are employed. So, in “building back better”, it is incumbent on the government and employers to ensure that women don’t bear the brunt of the economic shock and consequent redundancies.
After a decade of progress towards achieving greater gender diversity in our workplaces, the place of women in the workforce must be at the forefront of any economic recovery package. So, how can this be achieved?
First, the Treasury needs to make proper strides towards producing robust gender impact equality assessments. As Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, we made clear that these assessments aren’t yet detailed enough. What gets measured gets done. We need to see the Treasury make real progress on this.
Second, to try to lessen the burdens on employers, the requirement for large companies and public sector organisations with over 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap data in Spring 2020 was suspended at the start of the first lockdown.
The government has said that the publication requirement will be reinstated from October 2021. This is too slow. The regulations should restart from spring 2021 to signal the importance of employers keeping a handle on the pay gap. In any event, there is nothing to stop our largest companies from publishing sooner on a voluntary basis. They could publish their 2020 figures too: given last year’s suspension only happened a fortnight before the deadline, the data must have been collated internally within employer organisations and have been almost ready for publication.
Third, there is much talk of investment in infrastructure as part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda. Childcare provision is now part of our infrastructure. Having good childcare in place enables working parents to get to work and to be productive in the same way that efficient transport links and fast broadband do. The government has shown flexibility in relation to childcare funding and entitlements during the pandemic but there will still be parts of the sector that will struggle to reopen and to stay in business. Opening up our childcare sector to levelling-up funding would send a real signal about the central place of childcare in our economy. In any event, our nurseries and early years organisations employ significant numbers of female workers who need to keep their jobs.
The rise of “working from home” has been trumpeted as being good for women workers. The danger is that, as lockdown eases and some employees are encouraged to return to work, some women will find it impossible to go back, particularly due to caring responsibilities, which have increased due to the lockdown. These women will then not be present in the office as redundancy programmes start or, eventually, promotions commence. Employers should be clear that they will never consider “working from home” to be an easy option and that those doing it will receive equal treatment with their office-based colleagues.
Finally, we know there are some sectors where more women are employed which will take longer to recover. There may be some types of businesses in those sectors that never return to business as normal. Our future economic growth will depend on embracing digital and technological opportunities. Many women will excel in these fields if they are given the training and encouragement. Schemes such as TechUK’s Returners Programme or #echmums are already doing great work and could be given even greater priority and visibility in any government stimulus programmes.
Women have been at the frontline in tackling coronavirus. The government can now put women front and centre of our national economic recovery – levelling up applies to women in our economy and our workplaces.
Baroness Nicky Morgan is a Conservative peer and former Minister for Women and Equalities.