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PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION

EDITORIAL FEATURE

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COVID - SUPPORT 'REPEATEDLY SKEWED TOWARDS MEN', SAY MPS

Government policies have "repeatedly skewed towards men", a committee of MPs has said in a report on the impact of coronavirus on men and women.

Committee chair Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee said the government had "repeatedly failed to consider" the labour market and caring inequalities faced by women.

The report makes 20 recommendations including making it easier for staff to get flexible working arrangements.

Sharon Luca from Warwickshire works from home, running a clothing business and a charity raising money to help parents of stillborn children.

Her husband also works full time and so cannot help with home schooling.

Because she is helping her son do schoolwork, Sharon says she has "barely had any time to focus on my business or the charity".

This has meant losing "a big chunk" of her earnings she says, adding, "My income is my only independence."

Sharon thinks women are bearing the brunt of home schooling.

 

"I know a lot of mums who work from home or have small businesses like myself and all of them are saying that they've been affected by home schooling.

"They really don't have the time now to put in the energy to earn a living from their small business – home schooling overtook everything."

Black Country business leader Lisa Cowley, CEO of the Beacon Centre told Prosper, “Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions have had an impact on all of us. As CEO of a Health & Social Care charity, I have witnessed the impact on our members and our families, but also my colleagues. 

“The strain has been considerable on all of them, but those who are juggling home schooling, working and often caring for older relatives and/or neighbours, has been the most significant and that is most often my female colleagues. 

“The overwhelming majority of our frontline teams are female, and they have had to balance the needs of our members and those of their families and carried the emotional stress of often feeling there are failing, when really they are undertaking extraordinary feats. 

 

'Turning the clock back'

The Women and Equalities Committee has examined some of these problems and says the government needs to "start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy".

Ms Nokes said, "Government policies have repeatedly skewed towards men - and it keeps happening.

"The government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back."

The report notes that during the pandemic, women spent more time on caring duties than men, yet "furlough was not clearly articulated as a right for those with caring responsibilities".

On sick pay, the report cites evidence that women were less likely to qualify for statutory sick pay, in part due to caring responsibilities, which meant their wages were too low to be eligible for the support.

Making over 20 recommendations, the committee said the government should:

  • Change the law to allow employees to request flexible working arrangements when they start a job rather than waiting 26 weeks as currently mandated by law

  • Maintain increases in support including the £20 rise in Universal Credit

  • Extend redundancy protection to cover pregnant women and new mothers

  • Review the availability of sick pay

  • Conduct an equality assessment of the support measures introduced during the pandemic

  • Reinstate gender pay gap reporting which was cancelled in March 2020 due to the pandemic

  • Review childcare provision to provide support not only for working parents but for those who are job-seeking or retraining

The MPs also urged the Women and Equalities Minister Liz Truss to be "much more ambitious" in getting other government departments to consider inequality when designing policies.

Responding to the report, Labour's shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, called for a "gendered response to the crisis".

She added, "The unequal impact of coronavirus on women is huge - women are more likely to work in low-paid sectors, to work in sectors which are currently shut down such as retail and hospitality and have taken on more caring responsibilities.

"The government cannot continue to deny and dismiss the reality of gender inequality across society."

'Culture shift'

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said "policy decisions have repeatedly ignored the specific needs of women", adding, "We are currently witnessing a generational roll back in maternal employment that will take us decades to repair."

British Chambers of Commerce co-executive director Claire Walker said that a national focus was needed to help parents and carers.

"Employers value the skills women bring to the workplace and the evidence shows that businesses with a diverse and inclusive workforce perform better."

She added, "Economic growth will depend on access to high quality, affordable childcare."

A government spokesperson said it had spent over £200bn on schemes "safeguarding people's jobs" including the Self Employment Income Scheme helping the 1.7 million self-employed women in the UK.

"Covid-19 is prompting a culture shift with more people than ever before working flexibly, and the government wants to harness that as we recover.

"By doing so, we could see more equal sharing of care work by parents, and more flexibility from employers, enabling us to unleash the potential of everyone across the country."

When schools were closed in the first lockdown last year, Analise thought she could juggle home-schooling her son with her occupational psychologist job.

But as things dragged on, she became increasingly exhausted and eventually realised she had no choice but to quit.

Analise is one of many parents whose employer has refused them furlough to take care of their children.

More than 2,000 working mothers said that they had recently been refused furlough, according to the TUC union.

The Women's Budget Group (WBG) and the Fawcett Society, which canvassed just over 1,000 parents, found twice as many mothers (15%) reported having to take time off work with no pay due to school closures or a self-isolating/sick child compared with fathers (8%).

And when it comes to who is responsible for childcare, 58% of mothers said "mostly me" compared with 23% of fathers.

Analise, who has an eight-year-old son, said she was starting work at 9pm and working through to the early hours, "just to try and juggle" everything.

"It was completely overwhelming, my mental health suffered."

What she needed was to be put on furlough, she says. But her employer, a small business that was busy in the pandemic, thought it would be unfair to other staff who had to keep working - most of whom didn't have children.

First Analise used all of her annual leave for childcare, then combined taking unpaid leave with spreading her hours out across the week.

But it wasn't enough, and as her husband earned more than her, she had to be the one who quit to focus on childcare.

"It was devastating to walk away from my career without a backup plan. But my employer couldn't see I was being asked to do the impossible."

All schools had to shut in the first lockdown, and only three months after pupils began to filter back in September they closed again.

It's left parents having to cover around six hours of home-schooling a day for months on end. And women seem to be bearing the brunt.

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