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The recovery from COVID-19 must mean building a better economy for women

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The recovery from COVID-19 must mean building a better economy for women

Engender director Emma Ritch on the principles which should guide the recovery from lockdown

The economic downturn kicked off by COVID-19 is different from those caused by previous shocks. It is likely to have a harsher impact on hospitality, retail, and care sectors which are dominated by female and Black and minority ethnic workers. This means that the traditional approach to stimulus will work even less well than usual; we can’t simply spend on a narrowly defined set of infrastructure projects that will create ‘jobs for the boys’.

Instead, COVID-19 has presented us with some urgent challenges about how we pivot towards an economy that grows in a way that benefits us all; sustaining care and other public services at the same time as it creates good quality jobs.

Engender and Close the Gap have developed a set of principles for a post-COVID recovery that expand on Scotland’s existing commitment to inclusive growth. They are a set of ideas, challenges, and calls that are rooted in evidence. They describe features of an economy that works for women as well as men. If COVID-19 has told us anything, it is this: care is as essential to our economy as bricks, steel, and fibre optic cable.

Pre-COVID, women in opposite-sex headed households were overwhelmingly likely to be the ones balancing the tottering tower of their family’s work-life balance. An insufficiency of childcare, especially for disabled children and the children of shiftworkers, meant that women were more likely to be working in precarious, low-paid employment, dependent on informal childcare arrangements from family and friends, and struggling to make public transport work to get them where they needed to go. With nurseries and schools closed and grandparents off-limits, the period of lockdown has seen a massive increase in women’s unpaid work: childcare, supervising home schooling, care for disabled and older people, and household management.

Proposals that have been trailed for the next phase of COVID-19 response are heavily reliant on staggering use of public transport, maintaining social distancing, and reducing the school day for individual children. With women’s resources already depleted by a furlough scheme that didn’t meet their needs, the tottering tower is about to collapse on women’s heads.

If the gradual emergence from lockdown is not to see a wave of women resigning from their jobs, as school and nursery schedules prove impossible to reconcile with employment, then we need to pay urgent attention to how the state can pick up some of the slack.

This cannot involve the creation of more low-paid poor-quality jobs. Women’s paid work in care, cleaning, catering, retail, and clerical roles has for too long been undervalued, underpaid, and underprotected. It is time for state and public bodies to use their wage-setting powers to increase pay in these sectors and improve their conditions of work.

As economist Emily Thomson has written: “We need to put money into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it when the productive economy reopens.”

Money in women’s pockets is more likely to be spent on food, consumable household goods, and children’s clothes and shoes. Whether from their pay packets, or from cash transfers from enhanced social security payments or universal basic income, this type of spending sustains local economies.  

Existing patterns of growth not only leave women behind, but are pushing women behind. Changing this means reviewing the industries that should be prioritised for investment and policy focus, and enabling individual enterprises to change to bring women into economic sectors that have functionally excluded them.

Part of the explanation for the current economic dysfunction is that the tools that we use to measure the economy largely ignore what happens in the household. GDP is one yardstick by which we can measure growth but we need a more fulsome set of economic indicators that also measure the extent to which all groups of women and men have an adequate standard of living, including access to housing, social protections, and health.

Another reason for overlooking the economic impact of unpaid work is that women are conspicuous by their absence around economic decision-making tables. There are currently only 18 incumbent female finance ministers within the governments of sovereign states. Of the 79 winners of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, only one has been female: Elinor Ostrom. We have women in the critical economy and finance cabinet roles in Scotland. It’s time for economic decision-making spaces to include more Black and minority ethnic and disabled women.

Covid-19 has exposed the network of cracks across our economy, which have previously been papered over by women’s unpaid work. Scotland’s economic recovery plans must be ambitious for a better, fairer, more just economy for women and men.

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