Image Credit: The Telegraph
The pandemic has not only lit a spotlight on existing gender inequality in the UK, but has strengthened the problem. The government’s failure to respond adequately to the challenges facing women highlights the misogyny still rife in parliament, and makes a mockery of Johnson’s 2019 pledge to ‘support women to reach their full potential’. Unless, of course, the Conservative bar for women’s ‘potential’ was set very low in the first place.
As shown in a study by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), when education moved from school to the home, women, unsurprisingly, endured huge increases in unpaid care work. Whilst the higher proportion of female part-time workers claims some of the responsibility for this, social norms were also instrumental in the expectation of women to foreground the care of others. Many women had to make life changing sacrifices to cope with the new workload, with their career prospects often suffering as a result. It has been an impossible demand for many to juggle the care responsibilities with work, and many have been forced to take the reduced hours that employers have been happy to encourage during the pandemic.
It has been revealed that only when men work considerably less hours than their female partners do they take on the same burden of household responsibility. Some argue that with more women in part-time employment, they are more likely to be in a position to undertake more of the unpaid duties. However, this fails to acknowledge the sexism inherent in this workforce structure, and plays into the narrative that denies what these ‘female’ tasks really are: work. The government’s failure to support women, and their jobs, adequately throughout the pandemic has allowed women to fall into these misogynistic expectations, as there is often no other choice for them. But the Conservative upholding of patriarchal norms is hardly surprising. What more could be expected from a party laden with traditional values and backed up by elite members who couldn’t be further from a representation of the country’s population?
The CEP study also showed that when companies began to cut staff numbers in light of the economic impacts of Covid-19, women were more likely to be chosen than men. Instead of working to avoid this discrimination, the government actually enabled injustices to occur through their decision to allow companies to delay the providing of their gender pay gap data. There have been numerous reports from pregnant women concerning their unfair dismissal from work, and The Resolution Foundation has said that black, Asian and minority ethnic female workers have been the most likely to fall into unemployment following furlough. This showcases the government’s utter failure to protect women, particularly those most in need of support due to existing racial discrimination.
Even if women were allowed to return to their jobs after the national lockdown, the structure of the workforce again places them at risk. As shown by the CEP study, women are more likely to be in service jobs, working in crowded environments such as shops and restaurants. They are undoubtedly at higher risk of infection, something which has been little helped by hordes of Christmas shoppers arriving at the non-essential shops the government has allowed to open. Johnson’s decision clearly demonstrates his capitalistic prioritising of the economy before the (probably female) individual. Front line NHS workers are also more likely to be female, and the government’s dire handling of the provision of protective measures for these workers again suggests that Johnson’s priorities lie far from female protection. But the disproportionate number of black, Asian and ethnic minority NHS workers that have been affected by coronavirus highlights the government’s response to the pandemic as a failure that spans far broader than gender; it has promoted discrimination and reversed equality for so many.
The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated their dangerous incompetence. Not only have they failed to promote gender equality ideals, but existing inequalities in social expectations and structures have been highlighted. Action needs to be taken to close the gap in gender equality that has only been exacerbated in recent months, particularly for women most vulnerable to discrimination. What has been made clear is that this cannot be done with a Conservative government.