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How lockdown has left women more vulnerable to the recession

Woman shopping - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Woman shopping - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Life in Britain has become a lot more expensive. Two pints of milk in Tesco cost 63pc more than a year ago, a block of cheddar is 50pc dearer and butter is up over a third.

Turning on the heating costs nearly twice as much as last winter, and the cost of sending your children to nursery has risen roughly twice as fast as inflation over the past decade.

While price rises will be felt by everyone, the cost of living crisis is hitting women harder than men.

“We're really worried that women are at the kind of sharp end of the cost of living crisis,” says Melanie Wilkes, head of research at think tank the Work Foundation.

Women are more likely to be in lower paid work than men. They are more likely to be the head of single parent households, forcing them to make their incomes go further. And childcare responsibilities often force mothers to choose between expensive care or part-time work that allows them to be there to look after their kids.

All of that means women are feeling the impact of rising prices more keenly than men. They are more at risk of being laid off and, in some cases, more likely to find themselves trapped in abusive relationships as a result of financial need.

“This is a crisis of incomes as well as a crisis of prices,” says Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group. “Women are more likely to be poor to start off with and more likely to be in debt. Their caring responsibilities also mean that they're less able to increase their hours of work, in order to get additional money to deal with rising costs.”

More than a fifth of women - 22pc - have persistent low income, according to the National Education Union, compared with 14pc of men.

Women are twice as likely to be in severely insecure work such as zero-hour contracts, according to think tank The Work Foundation. This makes them more vulnerable in a recession and leaves them with fewer rights such as redundancy pay.

Women are also overrepresented in the public sector, where pay rates are lagging behind the private sector and well behind inflation. 55pc of the public sector workforce is female.

Wages only grew by 2.2pc in the three months through September, compared to 6.6pc on average in the private sector. Meanwhile, inflation remains in double digits at 11.1pc, with food prices rising even faster at 16.4pc.

Soaring inflation and lower incomes mean women typically spend a greater share of their income on food and energy.

“If you think about poor households and poor individuals, they're more severely hit, both on the costs and on the side of their disposable income,” says Barbara Petrongolo, a Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford.

Women are also much more likely to be raising children alone.

“Single-parent households are overrepresented among the poor households,” Professor Petrongolo says. “Then you just need to look at who is living in this single-parent household: 90pc are women.”

Ms Stephenson says that women are more likely to be “shock absorbers” of poverty: “In families, it's more likely to be mothers who skip meals, have shirts with holes in them, don't have winter coats, in order to make sure that their kids have got food on the table and are properly clothed.”.

Charity Stepchange says that 71pc of new people coming to them for help with their debts because of the cost of living crisis are women.

Money woes can affect women in another way: Refuge, a domestic abuse charity, has found that women in abusive relationships are finding it harder to leave abusers because of the cost of living crisis. Many were forced to choose between staying with their abusive partner or risking destitution. Over half of the frontline staff reported that economic pressures were forcing survivors to return to their abusers.

It is the second time in just a few years that women have suffered disproportionately from a downturn: some observers dubbed the Covid crisis the “shesession” because of its impact on women.

Research led by Abi Adams-Prassl of Oxford University found that British women were 15pc more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic and 8pc more likely to have been furloughed.

Women made up the majority of employees in industries that suffered the most severe Covid job losses, such as retail, accommodation and food services.

“Women were the majority of workers in some of those sectors that were completely closed in the first lockdowns - high street retail other than food, hospitality, travel and tourism, for example - so more likely to be furloughed, and particularly for lower paid women, less likely to have their pay topped up when they were furloughed by their employers,” Ms Stephenson says.

“For poor women in particular, Covid meant an increase in levels of personal debt.”

Approaching half of mothers who were made redundant during the pandemic believed their struggles with childcare contributed to them losing their jobs, according to a report by the House of Commons Library.

Childcare costs in the UK have risen by 59pc since 2010, with parents spending the third highest share of their income on it among OECD countries. As a result, the UK has a relatively high rate of mothers working part-time rather than full-time - a category of employee often most at risk of being let go when a downturn hits.

Even though women were more likely to be furloughed, some 70pc with caring responsibilities who requested paid time off after schools closed in 2021 were denied their request, according to the House of Commons report.

These problems are not unique to Britain: working hours for women fell across all countries during the pandemic, according to research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), with their pay decreasing more than for men.

Rosalia Vazquez-Alvarez of the ILO believes women who have returned to work will have come back on fewer hours post-pandemic.

The fear now however is that the cost of living crisis so soon after the pandemic will leave lasting scars on careers and livelihoods of generations of women, leaving them worse off than they otherwise would have been.

“We're worried we could see setbacks,” Wilkes says. “We've been looking at the gender pay gap, and it does feel like progress is slowing down on that front. Lots of people are really struggling to find childcare, where they live, and childcare that fits in with their working hours.”

For many women and working mothers, the challenges and struggles will be all too familiar.