Comment

The gaping gender divide in lockdown should be an alarm call to us all

Britain must wake up or risk robbing women in this country of the gains we have fought so hard to achieve

In this crisis, women are discovering they are not being treated as equals, writes Judith Woods 
In this crisis, women are discovering they are not being treated as equals, writes Judith Woods  Credit: FatCamera/E+

Regulars to this column will know that I’m not necessarily a go-with-the flow-er. I’m disinclined to join the herd, millstone myself with political party affiliations or sign petitions for the sake of appearances. “Bloody minded – but sometimes bloody right,” as one reader put it. I’ll take that, thank you.

But every now and then a cause comes along that is so urgent, so important, so blindingly imperative, that it would be inconceivable not to add my voice.

Equality Check is just such an initiative. Yesterday, you will have seen the logo appear on these pages as we highlighted the shocking, disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women of every age, stage, race and class.

Which is why I am lending it my full-throated support. This is not about exceptionalism, but equality.

Men have a higher mortality rate from coronavirus itself and rightly have access to all available resources. But women are being hit by its wider effects: redundancy, wage cuts and the crippling of sectors such as hospitality, leisure and retail. And they are being forgotten.

Globally, around 44 million redundancies are expected; 31 million of them will be women. Without serious intervention, Britain will not be bucking that trend.

“I have lost my income and I have no chance of getting another job as things stand,” says my friend Anna, who had a hairdresser’s salon in Hertfordshire. Her husband, a builder, is still working.

“I am at my wits’ end. I know a dozen women in my position and we are in despair; it feels very unfair. My two boys are 18 months and four; a lot of my income went on childcare, but that was my choice. I felt it was worth it in the long run to build up the business. I want to resume my career, to make a contribution, but until nurseries and child-minders reopen, I am stuck. I can’t help thinking that the government regards women’s unemployment as less important than men’s.”

Before the Dinosnores raise their heads from their Gentleman’s Relish to grumble about the monstrous regiment, let me say – cry to high the heavens! – this is not a competition between health versus wealth, or an hysterical, historical re-enactment of the battle of the sexes: it’s an alarm call to everyone.

Britain must wake up and stop sleepwalking towards a cliff-edge that will rob women in the country of the gains we have fought so hard to achieve – and, ultimately, it will be the entire nation’s loss.

“I had a phone call with a female colleague this week that made me feel so nauseous, I literally has to sit down,” says another friend, Carmen, who has been furloughed from her marketing firm. “She told me that the talk in the HR department is that men should be given priority when it comes to the new head count because, if there’s a second wave of Covid, ‘women will need to look after their families’.”

For Carmen, it felt like a blow to the solar plexus. She is divorced and her children have long since flown the nest. Yet decisions are being made about her future based on deeply sexist assumptions she thought had gone the way of dodgy Seventies’ comedians and the Miss World bikini round.

“I am furious, but utterly impotent,” she tells me. “I was told all this in confidence. I know for a fact that if I make a fuss I will be branded a troublemaker. I am really good at my job and I might lose it because some absolute idiot in personnel is reverting to lazy stereotypes about ‘a woman’s place’.”

Across Britain, women are coping with the bulk of childcare and home education. Mothers are almost 50 per cent more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since the lockdown began, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown.

More working mothers have been compelled take unpaid leave or voluntary furlough in order to care for family members during lockdown. One in four women who are pregnant or on maternity leave have experienced unfair discrimination at work by being singled out for furlough or redundancy.

Since lockdown began on March 23, demand for Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline has risen by 66 per cent. Visits to the website have risen by 950 per cent.

In this crisis, women are discovering they are not being treated as equals.

It is entirely unacceptable to learn that lockdown will delay the closing of the gender pay gap by another 30 years, on top of the 60 years already predicted.

Here we are, in 2020, and it will be the best part of a century before my grandchildren, my daughters’ daughters, are given parity. That damning fact alone should be a source of dismay – and a spur to halt the decline.

“Since lockdown, I have worked full time while trying to get the kids to do schoolwork,” says my neighbour Liz (not her real name, for obvious reasons). “I do the housework and organise the Zoom calls with the grandparents. It has been taken as read by wider family and our employers that my husband’s job is somehow more important, when it’s not. Every mother I know is in the same position; God knows what message it sends to our daughter.”

Where, Prime Minister, are the clever, able women at the heart of policy making? Priti Patel may be Home Secretary, but on a day to day basis, she’s more elusive than the Northern Lights.

Not a single one of the four new government committees to deal with the coronavirus pandemic (focusing on healthcare, the general public sector, economic and business, and international response) is chaired by a woman. What does that say about our institutions?

I know that some will question why we are raising the Equality Check issue at a time when the whole nation should be pulling together.

The reality is that we are not; the divide between the genders is getting greater. Women are not asking for anything more than fairness.

Is that really too much?

Read Judith Woods at telegraph.co.uk every Thursday, from 7pm

Read more Equality Check stories