Women’s jobs hit hardest by Covid-19

10 March 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read

The slow progress being made to equitably include women in the UK workforce is at risk of being obliterated by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new white paper. While the UK made faster progress towards the economic empowerment of women than the OECD average in 2019, that 2.4% boost to women in work across the country will have come under intense pressure from the impacts of the lockdown.

According to a new report from Strategy&, while the pace of progress towards gender equality across the OECD remains slow, the negative impacts of the coronavirus are disproportionately being felt by women and threaten to reverse the important gains that have been made in the last decade. The strategy consultancy’s annual Women in Work survey found that while the UK saw more women entering the workforce in 2019 than the OECD average, much of that progress came in industries which will have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

A stark warning from the firm’s accompanying statement said, “The unemployment rate rose across the OECD in 2020, with women losing their jobs at a faster rate than men. Covid-19 is also amplifying the unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work carried by women. Caring responsibilities have already caused more women than men to exit the workforce.”

Number of furloughed jobs in the UK, by gender + Quarterly unemployment rate across the OECD

Every stage of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK has seen a gendered fallout, with pre-existing inequalities, such as the disproportionate number of women working in low-paid, service industry roles, or the epidemic of unpaid domestic labour, causing women to be hardest hit by job losses and school closures. According to an IFS report in April 2020 Women were about one third more likely to work in a sector that was shut down by Covid-19 than men, while and even after controlling for occupation, women were still significantly more likely to have lost their jobs than men, according to Cambridge University research performed at the same time. 

In this context, Strategy&’s findings that the proportion of women entering the UK workforce in 2019 is a little academic. All the nations and regions of the UK except Wales showed improving index scores, increasing by 2.4% on average across the country – twice the growth speed of the OECD average. This placed the UK 16th on the Women in Work Index, making it the 12th best OECD performer. 

However, even then, Strategy& found that the UK lagged behind other countries in its share of female employees in full time work. In 2019, only 64% of women in work were on full time contracts, compared to 89% for men. Not only does this mean that, according to the study, it would take a further 32 years for female workers in the UK to equal the full time rate of the OECD average, but it positions many women in an extremely vulnerable working situation going into the pandemic.

UK Women in Work Regional Index scores

At present a sizeable number of jobs have been preserved by the government’s job retention scheme. However, when that draws to a close, that will also place a disproportionate number of female workers at risk. According to Strategy&, looking at the 15.3 million jobs furloughed in the UK by October 2020, 52% belonged to women – despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.

Strategy& believes that the longer this higher care burden on women lasts, the more likely women are to leave the labour market permanently – “not only reversing progress towards gender equality, but also stunting economic growth.” The consultancy suggests that there are major economic benefits to increasing the number of women in work, rather than allowing that figure to collapse amid the current crisis.

Around 840,000 jobs for women could contribute roughly £48 billion per annum to the UK economy, the study estimates. This could be achieved simply by enabling female labour force participation to match the South West – a consistent top regional performer in the UK index – which currently has an index score of 42.2. London is currently on a score of 30.9 however, so there is some distance to travel before that can become a reality – and it will require action from both businesses and governments in the meantime.