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12 March 2021

Women losing out under furlough scheme

It may not be doing enough to address the economic impacts of the pandemic on women

woman stressed

Does furlough work for women?

Read the research

The UK government’s furlough scheme may not be doing enough to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis on women, according to new analysis.

The research, by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, looked at experiences of furlough during the early months of the pandemic, between April and July 2020. It found:

  • Women who were furloughed were more likely to be furloughed for longer periods. In July 2020, 31% of women who had been furloughed at any point during the pandemic had worked zero hours since March, compared with 20% of their male peers.

  • Furloughed women had worse perceptions of their job security than had furloughed men. Women who had been on furlough were 8 percentage points more likely than their male counterparts to put their chance of losing their jobs at greater than one in five. For comparison, among all workers, the situation is reversed, with men (51%) less likely than women (62%) to say they have no chance of losing their job in the next three months.

  • Furloughed women had worse projected financial security than had furloughed men. Among workers in general, men and women were equally likely to say they would have no trouble paying their usual bills in the next three months. Among workers who had been furloughed at any point between April and July 2020, however, women were 12 percentage points more likely to say they had a greater than one in five chance of struggling to pay their usual bills.

These gender disparities are likely down to the long-term use of furlough in the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, in which women make up the majority of workers, such as accommodation and food services and the arts and entertainment sector.

Pre-existing vulnerabilities, including women’s greater likelihood of being low-paid and on insecure contracts, may also be factors, along with childcare and home-schooling demands, the researchers say. Some women who were initially furloughed in March 2020 may have been unable to return to work due to these demands and may have been able to remain on furlough for longer. Further analysis is ongoing to help explain the gender gaps observed.

But the researchers say that by providing a blanket response for all industries and workers, the furlough scheme does not take into account these highly sectoral and gendered impacts of the pandemic, and has therefore failed to consider the likely implications of the policy for equality in the UK.

Remaining on furlough for long periods, on low levels of pay, is likely to be damaging for women’s long-term prospects, employability, wellbeing and living standards. Alternative approaches such as retraining programmes and additional support for low-paid workers could be considered as a way to support the hardest-hit sectors, the analysis concludes.

The data used in the analysis is drawn from the nationally representative Understanding Society Covid-19 survey, a supplement to the UK Household Longitudinal survey, which usually takes place annually.

The furlough scheme has undoubtedly prevented mass job losses. However, our results suggest that in 2020, once furloughed, women were disproportionately furloughed for longer periods, and had worse perceived job and financial security than their male peers. This provides yet another example of why gender-sensitive policymaking is needed to prevent women losing out even further than they already have from the impacts of pandemic.

Dr Rose Cook, senior research fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London

The research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/V009370/1].

The data that support the findings of this study are openly available from the UK Data Service at, reference number 8644.