Pandemic could leave women struggling for years

A new report suggests women could take years to recover from the pandemic if the disproportionate gender impact of furlough is translated into job losses.

A woman holds a box full of her work effects near to a desk with papers on it


Progress for women in work could return to 2017 levels by the end of this year due to the pandemic, according to a new analysis.

The analysis for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 OECD countries, says it does not anticipate women’s economic empowerment beginning to recover until 2022. However, it says that, in order to undo the damage caused by Covid to women in work by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

The report points out that the furlough scheme has so far cushioned the blow to women’s jobs, but says that if current furlough data is indicative of future unemployment trends, a larger number of women will face the risk of job loss than men once the scheme ends in April.

PwC says that, between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the UK. For furloughed jobs for which gender was known, 52% of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.

It adds that women were around a third more likely to work in a sector that was completely shut down during the first national lockdown than men, with accommodation and food services and arts, entertainment and recreation among the most impacted sectors. In October 2020 for example, the accommodation and food services industry recorded both the highest number of furloughed jobs (more than 600,000) and the highest share of furloughed jobs within a sector (40%). Women make up 55% of jobs in this sector. By contrast, male-dominated industries of manufacturing and construction, both of which have faced fewer restrictions, furloughed only around 7% of workers each.

PwC also says that the unequal burden of care on women, which existed before the pandemic and which has seen more women than men doing homeschooling and childcare while working, means that, over the long term, women are likely to leave (or reduce time spent in) the labour market permanently. It adds that women who take a career break due to Covid with the intention of returning when the pandemic has ended could face problems and are likely to return to lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs.

Laura Hinton, Chief People Officer at PwC, called for urgent action from policymakers and governments to address the problem, such as promoting and championing schemes like shared parental leave, affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements.

She added: “For businesses in particular, it’s paramount that gender pay gap reporting is prioritised, with targeted action plans put in place as businesses focus on building back better and fairer. An important action that should be front and centre of these plans is focusing on developing skills and training initiatives that are tailored to the needs of women, ensuring women can access employment in high growth sectors such as technology.”

The UK is ranked 16th on the Index against the OECD group of countries, with Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand topping the table in 2019. PwC says that, if female employment rates across the OECD increased to match those of Sweden, this would boost OECD GDP by more than US$6 trillion (£4.63 trillion).

The UK held its second place ranking across the G7, narrowing its gap with Canada in first place and growing at twice the rate of the OECD average between 2018 and 2019, although the pandemic will have reversed these gains.

Moreover, the UK still lags behind other countries in the share of female employees in full-time employment. In 2019, only 64% of women in work were in full-time employment, compared to 89% of men.

It calculates that increasing the number of women in work could have significant benefits for the economy, for instance, if female participation rates across the UK matched those of the South West region (the consistent top performer for female participation in every year of the Index), the UK could gain £48bn, which is equivalent to 840,000 jobs.


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