Gender equality in Scotland is facing a perfect storm – Richard Leonard

A lasting legacy of the coronavirus lockdown could be a widening of the gender pay gap unless action is taken, writes Richard Leonard.

Women took on more of the extra child care duties during lockdown than men (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Women took on more of the extra child care duties during lockdown than men (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Women took on more of the extra child care duties during lockdown than men (Picture: Michael Gillen)

The Covid-19 emergency has exacerbated social and economic inequalities between women and men. It is essential that it does not entrench them.

We know that women’s unemployment in Scotland has risen by over 50 per cent since last year: that’s three times higher than the percentage change for men. This has in part been driven by the preponderance of women working in those hardest-hit lockdown sectors like hospitality, non-food retail, and tourism. And part as a result of the prevalence of precarious forms of employment in those same sectors. But it is also evident that many women have been forced out of the paid labour force because of the heavier burden shouldered by them in unpaid caring roles. So that when the collective provision of public services from the education of our children to the day care of our older citizens is suspended, the onus falls back to the individual household. And within the individual household it is invariably the mother not the father, the daughter not the son, the sister not the brother, who picks that primary responsibility up.

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The Office for National Statistics reported recently that during the first few weeks of lockdown, in households with children below the age of 18, women were on average carrying out two-thirds more of the childcare duties than men.

The same report also found that parents were nearly twice as likely to be supported through the Job Retention Scheme than other workers without dependent children. That means that as the furlough scheme is step by step closed down through August and September and then switched off completely at the end of October, there will be a huge and disproportionate impact on working parents.

Delay to £10 Scottish child payment

The Scottish Government has not made any of this any easier.

Its decision to delay, from this year until next, the roll-out and funding of 1,140 hours of free childcare is a major blow. It will switch the balance of responsibility back onto households and so in effect back on to women.

Similarly, its handling of the reopening of schools has been shambolic and left parents either bemused at best, or justifiably angry about the opaqueness of the arrangements, just a matter of days away from the restart.

The delay to the implementation of the £10 Scottish child payment at the very time when the Scottish Government’s own advisers are calling for additional funding to low-income families for reasons of economic as well as social benefit is also a wrong choice.

The combined impact of all of this is that there is a real danger of a perfect storm of joblessness, poverty and inequality that will push progress made on gender equality back for years. There will be more women forced out of paid work, producing a widening gender employment gap which in turn will open up Scotland’s 13 per cent gender pay gap ever wider.

‘Coming to a crisis point’

It is becoming clearer by the day that the SNP Government does not have any grasp of what impact its decisions are having, and certainly no evidence of any meaningful gender impact assessment of its changed priorities. In other spheres of public policy, we are told to follow the science. I’m not sure that when it comes to the gender effect of Scottish Government policies the data is being collected to do that. If it did, it would surely change course.

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The policy and advocacy organisation Engender has just produced a report in which it persuasively argues that “women’s unpaid reproductive labour has been ignored and marginalised within our economic and social policy for generations, but Covid-19 has at once made our reliance on care for others obvious and has intensified its demands”.

And they conclude: “Unless we take this opportunity to recount, reward and reallocate unpaid work, we will see women’s progress in the labour market, in political representation, and in public lives, roll back decades.” We are, Engender warns, “coming to a crisis point”.

There is a means of averting that crisis. It is a present and future based on security of employment and the proper evaluation of job roles, of greater equality and positive action after the lockdown.

It demands an immediate and substantial investment in the extension of free nurseries and childcare: and in so doing boosting both employment and support for employment.

It necessitates a radical extension of the Jobs Retention Scheme in targeted sectors with a more flexible approach and the introduction of a quality, trade union-approved, Scottish jobs guarantee scheme which acts as a bridge back to the labour market not just for young workers, but for women of all ages too.

And it depends on direct action to tackle the gender pay gap, including unpicking occupational segregation by sex, and a fundamental revaluation of pay and status in sectors and services like care, health and retail. And that must begin with a substantial pay rise to those key workers who have sacrificed so much in recent months.

A matter of life and death

If we do not act, then the price will be paid for years to come. There is no doubt that a growth in poverty, and an accelerated rise in inequalities of income, wealth and power will put a huge financial strain on people. But it will also impose an overbearing mental and emotional strain on them too.

We know that powerlessness breeds hopelessness and that lack of hope lowers life expectancy. Shockingly life expectancy in Scotland was already falling even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

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So, in whose interests any recovery is set really is a matter of life and death. That is something we should never become inured to.

Of course, there is another factor to consider and that is how we can bring about a better division of labour between women and men when it comes to caring and domestic responsibilities, between the household and the state, and between paid and unpaid work.

This would represent a profound cultural change, but if ever there was a time to get to work on it, that time is now.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour Party

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