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Women are losing out from Covid-19 economic measures

ANASTASIA LEWIS: A gender-sensitive response is still lacking

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Anastasia Lewis is an intern at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership and an MA Public Policy student at King's College London.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not just a public health crisis – it’s a socioeconomic one, too.

The United Nations has warned that women are being disproportionately affected by the broader societal impacts of the coronavirus crisis. So what action is being taken to alleviate and reduce these uneven impacts?

Though a truly global crisis, countries across the world have adopted unique approaches to addressing the fallout from Covid-19. Comparing just the response of the UK with other English-speaking countries, the variance in measures is clear.

Disproportionate job losses unaccounted for

Recent coverage has focused on the overrepresentation of women working on the frontline doing essential work in the health and social care sectors. However, women also make up a large proportion of workers in the sectors that are worst hit by the pandemic. As international travel comes to a halt and non-essential shops close, sectors dominated by women – such as hospitality, retail and tourism – have suffered hugely, leaving many women in precarious financial situations.

The UK government has implemented the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS) to encourage employers to furlough staff. The scheme allows employers to claim 80 per cent of wages with the possibility that once the Covid-19 crisis is over employees can return to work. However, the UK’s scheme is optional, and some employers are instead opting to let employees go altogether. Job losses are being found at higher levels within female-dominated industries. Thus many women are likely to be miss out on the benefits of the JRS.

Self-employed women are falling through the cracks

Women make up large portions of the self-employed and part-time workforce due to the compatibility of such work with caring responsibilities. And given that such workers face restrictions around sick pay and often have irregular incomes, this leaves women vulnerable.

Efforts to alleviate this vulnerability amid Covid-19 have been limited. The UK’s self-employment support scheme offers those who are self-employed and earning less than £50,000 a year a taxable grant of 80 per cent of their average earnings. However, this will not be available until June, so many will need to access Universal Credit (UC) before this.

This is problematic not only due to existing UC delays but because UC is calculated on the assumption that the self-employed are working full-time and earning the national minimum wage. This is not the case for all, particularly the 59 per cent of part-time self-employed workers who are women. Statutory sick pay (SSP) in the UK now begins from the first day of absence, as opposed to the fourth. However, this payment has only increased by £1.60, to £95.85 per week, and no action has been taken to extend eligibility to the self-employed.

In New Zealand, by contrast, more support has been offered to the self-employed. The country’s Emergency Wage Subsidy provides a payment covering 12 weeks to all, including the self-employed whose income has fallen by over 30 per cent due to the pandemic, as well as a sick leave assistance package which offers payments for up to eight weeks and is inclusive of self-employed workers, whether full or part-time.

Limited support for working parents

Social distancing has resulted in schools and early years settings being closed. From what we know about the unequal division of domestic labour, with most unpaid care work performed by women, it is safe to predict that coronavirus will exacerbate this inequality. Researchers have found that men in the UK are doing, on average, less than 2.5 hours of childcare and 2 hours of homeschooling under lockdown, while women are doing over 3.5 and over 2 hours respectively.

Across countries, there has been limited support to working parents. In the UK, schools and early years settings are only open to the children of essential workers and no support for childcare is available. So far, only Australia has provided comprehensive support to parents, introducing a Child Care Subsidy (CCS) which gives parents access to free childcare until June. The lack of similar initiatives in the UK is concerning, as often when dual-earning households do not have childcare support one earner is forced to compromise their employment to fulfil caring duties – a concession most often made by women.

Much more to be done…

These initiatives will have varying outcomes and success. However, one similarity is the conditions for eligibility and access, which rely on immigration status. In the UK, those “subject to immigration control” have no recourse to public funds, while in Australia access to the CCS depends on residency status, and families with mixed migration status are excluded from the country’s $1,200-a-month stimulus package.

The exclusion of migrants from such measures highlights the particular vulnerabilities and challenges experienced by different groups of women – such as those who are older, disabled, from BAME communities, survivors of abuse, or lone parents – and the importance of further supporting them through these challenges.

Although Australia and New Zealand have applied some gender-sensitive policies in their attempts to alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19, governments are largely failing to consider how existing inequalities, patterns of employment and duties within the home interact with emerging challenges. Indeed, support packages have been largely designed with permanent, full-time employees with no caring responsibilities in mind. A failure to take into account gender differences in work patterns and domestic situations means underlying inequalities and limitations will persist, and in some cases, be exacerbated.