The gender equality problem at the heart of Government

The Women and Equalities Committee report highlights frustration at the failure of Government to properly monitor and consider the impact of Covid on women.



Yesterday’s Women and Equalities Committee report made a lot of recommendations, but a vital one is the call for equality impact assessments of Covid-related policies, including the furlough and Self Employed Income Support schemes and the post-Covid recovery strategy.

This may seem quite dry to many, but such assessments are essential if we are to build awareness of the consequences, both intended and unintended, of policies and ensure that the impact on women is part of considerations before those policies are put in place.

The problem is that the Minister for Women and Equalities told the Committee in her evidence that she felt publishing equality impact assessments would have “a chilling effect” when the reason for publication is precisely the opposite – to hold government to account. If the assessments are not published we have no idea whether the issues have been properly considered and indeed which issues have been considered or if some issues have been considered at all.

The Women and Equalities Committee report is also critical of Minister for Equalities Kemi Badenoch whose approach seems to be to avoid any discussion of particular inequalities. The report talks about her referring to the need to consider things “in the round” rather than looking at the impact on specific groups. Instead we have the Minister for Women and Equalities’ December speech about pivoting equalities work away from areas such as race and gender to focus more on class, as if there are not multiple and overlapping links between all these inequalities.

It is depressing indeed that we have these kinds of attitudes at the heart of government structures which are supposed to help women just at the time when women need that help the most – when there are concerns that Covid could set women back several years, not just because they have taken on most of the homeschooling burden with all the impact that has on jobs and careers, but also because of fears that childcare could be a major casualty of sustained underfunding and Covid neglect.

It may be instructive for those who question this interpretation to actually watch the Women and Equalities Committee sessions at which these ministers have given evidence to see exactly what their ministers are doing – or not doing as the case may be.

A care-led recovery

When it comes to the recovery, the report draws significantly on the Women’s Budget Group contribution about the gendered nature of plans for ‘building back better’, with the emphasis on ‘building’. Construction is notoriously male-dominated, despite great strides being made by some companies to address this.

The Women’s Budget Group has called instead for a care-led recovery, including more investment in childcare – one of the key barriers to women working after having children. Some may argue that that stereotypes women, but the truth is that women do historically dominate in those sectors – which may explain why they are traditionally undervalued – and that that is not going to change any time soon. We can surely both promote women in STEM and invest in the care sector. It shouldn’t have to be a case of leaving care out in the cold as a low paid, low valued profession while we only focus on, say, technology jobs. The onwards march of technology, including AI and robots, brings questions about what humans can offer that computers can’t. While many jobs can be replaced by bots, robots still lack those qualities that make us human – and the ability to provide care is one of those.

The Women’s Budget Group has estimated that a “care-led” recovery would “create over two million jobs, vastly more jobs for women, but actually significantly more jobs for men than, for example, investment in construction”.

The Committee asked the Minister for Equalities about the focus on typically male-dominated industries to which she responded: “We are not providing policies based on where men and where women work”. She added: “If the question you are asking is whether we have specific policies on this issue of perhaps getting more women into STEM, that is not something that Treasury would look at. We would expect other Departments that own those policy areas to bring their proposals to us. We cannot do all the thinking within Treasury, or even within the Government Equalities Office.”

One wonders: if it is not for the Minister for Equalities to suggest ways of addressing the recovery that don’t widen gender inequality, who then is it for?

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