Provocation Author – Women and Employment: Post COVID-19
Anna Ritchie Allan, Close the Gap
Anna Ritchie Allan is Executive Director of Close the Gap, Scotland’s policy advocacy organisation working on women’s labour market equality. She participates in a range of employer equality advisory groups, external policy working groups related to women and work employer, and is a member of the Ministerial working group on the gender pay gap. She is also chair of the board of Scottish Women’s Aid. Anna’s background is in research, labour rights, and violence against women.
COVID-19 risks turning back the clock on women’s equality at work
As the COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out, it’s tempting to think we’re nearing the end of the crisis. But for many women, the pandemic will have a long-term scarring effect on their working lives. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on Scotland’s labour market, and women’s employment has been harder hit in a multitude of ways, with young women and Black and minoritised women particularly affected.
Women are the majority of key workers, essential to an effective pandemic response. Every day nurses, care workers, cleaners, supermarket workers, and catering workers in schools keep our economy functioning, and yet this work is systematically undervalued, under-paid and under-protected. Two-thirds of women earn below the living wage, driving women’s higher levels of in-work poverty, and Scotland’s gender pay gap. Evidence from unions also suggests ongoing concerns around key worker safety, a lack of training on creating safe workplaces, and a failure to implement risk assessments in some local areas. Clapping won’t address the systemic failure to pay women fairly for their skilled labour, or protect them at work.
Women are also more likely to work in shutdown sectors, such as hospitality and retail, in low-paid and increasingly precarious jobs, and that’s especially true for young women and Black and minoritised women. More women than men have been furloughed, and women have been furloughed for longer periods of time. More women have lost their job, many have lost hours, and women will be disproportionately affected by job losses yet to come.
Lockdown has magnified women’s childcare roles. The closure of schools and nurseries has placed immense pressure on women as they’re expected to care for their children, supervise home schooling and do their job from home, often with minimal flexibility from their employer. Women are twice as likely as men to be forced to take time off work with no pay to self-isolate or do childcare during school closures. Despite having a caring role being a reason to be able to access furlough, 70% of working women with children had had their furlough request turned down by their employer when schools closed.
There’s a significant risk that COVID-19 will have a long-term damaging effect on women’s employment, push more women into poverty, and widen the gender pay gap. Close the Gap has welcomed the review of Scotland’s gender pay gap action plan to ensure that the actions reflect the effects of COVID-19 on women’s employment, but much more needs to be done. Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic has generally been characterised by a lack of gender mainstreaming, including poor quality equality impact assessment. Close the Gap has advocated for a gendered economic recovery that centres women, and their experiences of work and COVID-19, at the core of labour market policymaking. The drive to create “green jobs” can’t just mean “jobs for the boys”, and fair work has to mean fair work for women too. The Young Person’s Guarantee has to take account of young women’s experiences of education and employment, including occupational segregation and the greater likelihood that they’ll be sexually harassed at work.
But we also need action from employers. Women need flexibility that enables them to manage their caring role with their job during COVID-19, and in the longer-term. They need appropriate PPE to do their job, and they need a workplace culture free from discrimination. Gender equality isn’t just for the good times. Without intervention now, we risk losing hard won gains on women’s equality and rights at work.
Do you have lived experience of the challenges Anna has described? Have you been involved in tackling the inequalities in employment post COVID-19 among women and girls? If so, we want to hear from you on how Scotland can take positive action to address the issues and gender imbalance facing women and girls and supporting equality in the workplace. Join the conversation and share your views using the #GenerationEqual or have your say at OneScotland.org/NACWG