The pandemic has been disastrous for women’s economic progress. But inequality was baked into the system long before lockdown. By Linda Scott
Who would have predicted that on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, British women would be back in the home, up to their ears in dishes, dinners and nappies, watching their careers evaporate as the pay gap widens? The coronavirus pandemic could set women’s economic progress back half a century, according to warnings from international institutions including the UN and the World Economic Forum. In the downturn, the economic constraints that women around the world typically bear – from industry segregation to unequal access to capital – are painfully visible.
At the centre of women’s predicament is the expectation that they will sacrifice their own economic viability to provide care at home. The burden of care is the single biggest barrier to women’s economic participation everywhere in the world, whether in employment or business ownership. Because UK childcare is already more expensive than in most western nations, the percentage of part-time employment among working women – about 40% – was very high before Covid-19. Since women worked fewer hours in jobs that paid less per hour, limited childcare options had a direct effect on unequal pay. As three-quarters of the part-time labour force, women were hit hard when part-time jobs fell 70% in the first 11 weeks of the pandemic. When schools and daycare centres shut down to stem the spread of the virus, women across all industries and occupations saw the support most critical to their employment disappear.