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Recessions Have Typically Hit Women The Hardest – Will This One Be Any Different?
Words by KATIE BISHOP
Photography by CRAIG WHITEHEAD
Build
Recessions Have Typically Hit Women The Hardest – Will This One Be Any Different?
Words by KATIE BISHOP
Photography by CRAIG WHITEHEAD
The UK is officially in recession for the first time since 2009, thanks to the huge impact that coronavirus has had (and continues to have) on the economy. The last recession hit women the hardest - can we make sure that this time around is different?

The UK is officially in recession for the first time since 2009, thanks to the huge impact that coronavirus has had (and continues to have) on the economy. The last recession hit women the hardest - can we make sure that this time around is different?

The last few years have seen important steps forward in the pursuit of workplace equality. In 2018 a campaign by The Fawcett Society led to gender pay gap reporting legislation, and last year the government set out a roadmap addressing how they plan to support gender equality throughout women’s careers. Yet in spite of these efforts, women are still reeling from the impact of the 2008 recession and the decade of austerity that followed. 

“Recessions have both an immediate and longer-term impact,” explains Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Women’s Budget Group. “So, for example, in the immediate impact of the 2008 global financial crisis more men than women lost their jobs. But the austerity policies that followed hit women the hardest, and minority ethnic and disabled women the hardest of all. This is because women are more likely to work in the public sector where jobs were lost, and more likely to use public services which were cut, causing them to have to do additional unpaid work.”

"Women are being hit by a double whammy – both losing jobs and finding it hard to work at jobs if they are still employed"
Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Women’s Budget Group

For some, news of an impending recession is particularly daunting due to the disproportionate impact that lockdown has already had on women. Evidence suggests that throughout the pandemic women shouldered the burden of extra childcare and homeschooling, and International Labour Organisation has suggested that women are over-represented in some of the sectors hardest hit by the crisis. Concerns about the impact of another recession on women are so significant that experts are branding this the “pink collar recession”.

“Sectors such as hospitality, high street retail, travel and tourism have been hardest hit by social distancing measures – and these are female dominated industries,” says Stephenson. “Over a third of young women work in sectors that were completely closed down during this lockdown, and other sectors such as the beauty industry and adult social care are also predicting large-scale job losses. At the same time, the closure of nurseries and children being sent home because of COVID symptoms is making it harder for mothers in particular to work. So women are being hit by a double whammy – both losing jobs and finding it hard to work at jobs if they are still employed.”

In spite of worries about gender equality and the impact on women in the workplace the news isn’t all negative. Research conducted by AllBright suggests that the upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked 1 in 4 of its members to launch a new business venture, and some researchers have argued that the crisis may nudge employers towards long-term remote and flexible working arrangements that could benefit women in particular. Acknowledgement of the unpaid work that women have undertaken throughout the pandemic has also prompted widespread discussion of the economic value that childcare has, leading to hopes for greater recognition from employers and policymakers in future.

"Evidence points to the fact that protecting workers and promoting equality is not just a legal duty, but also brings economic benefits"
Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress

“The current crisis has shown the stark inequality in responsibility for unpaid care, with women far more likely than men to have taken on additional caring responsibilities,” says Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress. “The government must recognise the scale of inequality that the pandemic has revealed, and ministers must act now to ensure that the government policy response doesn’t mean that progress on equality goes into reverse.”

The long-term effects of both Covid-19 and the threat of another recession remain concerning. But for O’Grady the hope is that it gives us a chance to recognise the value of women in the workplace and to protect the work that they do.

“Work to eliminate discrimination from UK workplaces and promote equality is not a ‘nice to have’ additional extra that can be easily shelved when times are challenging,” she says. “Evidence points to the fact that protecting workers and promoting equality is not just a legal duty, but also brings economic benefits… Before the outbreak of coronavirus the government had already identified several areas for helping women progress at work. These included making flexible working the norm, strengthening protections around sexual harassment at work, reviewing the impact of gender pay gap reporting regulations, setting up a pregnancy and maternity taskforce, improving carers leave and strengthening redundancy protections for new mothers. This work must still go ahead.”

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