Covid has supercharged gender inequality – only Labour can deliver a fairer future for women

·4-min read
Not all women have experienced the Covid-19 crisis equally  (Getty/iStock)
Not all women have experienced the Covid-19 crisis equally (Getty/iStock)

It has not been an easy year for many women. When schools closed and offices emptied last March, it was predominantly mothers who took on the lion’s share of homeschooling and childcare.

When we closed our doors in lockdown, it was women who faced the horrifying increase in domestic abuse. When large parts of our economy shut down, it was women who were more likely to be furloughed, and women, disproportionately, putting their lives at risk on the frontline of the pandemic in our hospitals, schools and care homes.

But not all women have experienced this crisis equally. Disabled women are over eleven times more likely to have died from the virus as non-disabled women, while Black, Asian and ethnic minority women are already more likely to be unemployed.

Throughout this pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government has run roughshod over Labour’s Equality Act and public sector equality duty, publishing only two assessments of how their lockdown policies unfairly impacted women, disabled people and Black, Asian and ethnic minority people.

Now, 15 months into a crisis that poses the biggest threat to gender equality in decades, it is time for action to ensure an equal recovery.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we need radical policies to protect and promote gender equality at work, at home, and across society. That’s why, on 27 June, at Labour’s National Annual Women’s Conference, we will announce the Labour Party’s equal recovery pledge, which calls on the government to act urgently in pursuit of a fairer future for women.

The future of work for women must mean strengthened rights at work, more flexibility, and work that fits around the family and caring responsibilities that we have, which so often result in women losing out or even dropping out of the workforce completely.

That is why we are demanding the right to flexible working and the right to switch off from work at home, to help end the outdated and sexist assumption that “Dad” will be at work in the office while “Mum” will be looking after the kids and doing the housework at home.

Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to mothers, but fathers too – they must have the right to do the school run and make their work fit around childcare responsibilities, not the other way round.

We know that sharing care at home is necessary to achieve gender equality at work, but the government’s so-called shared parental leave system is failing to tackle the motherhood penalty, or to support fathers.

Last year, just 3.6 per cent of eligible fathers took parental leave, and our statutory pay rates are some of the lowest in Europe. It is high time the government reviewed this system, and the changing working practices ushered in by lockdown make this even more urgent and pressing.

The government’s rhetoric on gender equality will ring hollow if it does not radically overhaul shared parental leave and make it fit for purpose in a post-Covid world.

Unlike the Conservatives’ part-time secretary for women and equalities, Labour is also committed to gender pay gap reporting, which was suspended over a year ago, making it impossible to know the true scale of the impact of Covid on gender inequality in the workplace.

The government is also refusing to introduce ethnicity pay gap reporting, despite the CBI, the TUC, and the former advisory chair of the government’s own race disparity audit, Lord Woolley, agreeing with us that it is the right thing to do.

Labour would go one step further to modernise equal pay laws, and give women the right to know what their male counterparts earn. When it comes to equal pay, sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and this data is essential to delivering fair workplaces.

Only by making work a fairer place for women will we improve the daily lives of all women. Labour’s commitments to banning “fire and rehire” and zero-hours contracts, and to ending bogus self-employment, will also benefit women, who are more likely to be in insecure work than male workers. As an example, 80 per cent of our social care workforce is made up of women, and Labour’s demand for an immediate pay rise to at least £10 an hour would put an extra £2,500 in their pockets every year.

Our proposals to end violence against women and girls would also ensure a safer workplace for women by requiring employers to maintain workplaces free of harassment, including harassment by third parties, and by ratifying the ILO (International Labour Organisation) convention on violence and harassment at work.

The inequalities that have been supercharged by Covid cannot be carried through into our post-pandemic world. It’s time for transformative action to make Britain the best place to work for everyone, where equality is front and centre.

Only Labour can deliver this fairer future for women at work, with our long history of pioneering equality legislation which proves that workers’ rights are women’s rights.

Marsha de Cordova is Labour MP for Battersea and shadow secretary of state for women and equalities

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