Progress for women in work could be back at 2021 levels by the end of this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on analysis conducted for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 OECD countries.
For nine years, all countries over the OECD made consistent gains towards women’s economic empowerment. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend will be reversed, with the Index estimated to fall 2.1 points between 2021 and 2021.
It won't begin to recover until 2022, where it ought to gain back 0.8 points, but in order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.
In the UK, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has meant that the pandemic’s full effect on the labour market is not yet been seen, but if current furlough data is indicative of future unemployment trends, a bigger number of women will face the chance of job loss than men when the scheme ends.
Larice Stielow, senior economist at PwC, said: “In the UK, women were around a third more likely to work in a sector which was completely shut down during the first national lockdown than men, with accommodation and food services and arts, entertainment and recreation among the most impacted sectors.
“In October 2021 for instance, the accommodation and food services industry recorded both highest number of furloughed jobs (a lot more than 600,000) and the highest share of furloughed jobs within a sector (40%).
“Women make up 55% of jobs within this sector. By contrast, male-dominated industries of producing and construction, both of which have faced fewer restrictions, furloughed only around 7% of workers each.
“Losing women in the workforce not only reverses progress towards gender equality, it also affects economic growth. Although jobs will return when economies bounce back, they will not necessarily be the same jobs. If we don’t have policies in place to directly address the unequal burden of care, and to enable more women to go in jobs in growing sectors from the economy, women will return to fewer hours, lower-skilled, and lower paid jobs.”
In addition, even before the pandemic, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women). Throughout the pandemic, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7.7 more time per week on unpaid childcare than men – this ‘second shift’ up to an extra full time job. The more this higher burden on women lasts, the more women are likely to leave (or reduce time spent in) the labour market permanently.
While some women may decide to leave the workforce temporarily because of COVID-19, with the intention to return post-pandemic, studies suggest that career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s labour market prospects. For example, PwC UK’s Women Returners (2021) study showed that 60% of professional women are likely to return to lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs after career breaks. Which means that even if the female participation rate returns to previous levels within the longer term, women are likely to experience a permanent deterioration in their career prospects.
Laura Hinton, Chief People Officer at PwC, said: “Based on our findings, there is absolutely no time to lose in addressing the very real impact of the pandemic on women. Governments, policymakers and businesses have the ability to a responsibility to work together to empower ladies and create opportunities for meaningful participation within the workforce.
“These players have the ability to a role to play in addressing the gender inequalities in unpaid work, through promoting and championing schemes like shared parental leave, affordable childcare and versatile working arrangements.
“For businesses particularly, it’s paramount that gender pay gap reporting is prioritised, with targeted action plans put in place as businesses focus on building back better and fairer. An important action that should be front and centre of these plans is focusing on developing skills and training initiatives that are tailored to the needs of women, ensuring women can access employment in high growth sectors such as technology.”
Latest Women in Work Index (pre-COVID-19)
The UK is ranked 16th on the Index against the OECD group of countries, with Iceland, Sweden and Nz topping the table in 2021. If female employment rates across the OECD increased to match those of Sweden, this would boost OECD GDP by a lot more than US$6 trillion (£4.63 trillion).
The UK held its second place ranking over the G7, narrowing its gap with Canada on the first page and growing at twice the speed of the OECD average between 2021 and 2021, although the COVID-19 pandemic will have reversed these gains.
Despite improvements, the united kingdom lags behind other countries in the share of female employees in full-time employment. In 2021, only 64% of ladies in work were in full time employment, compared to 89% in men, meaning that, at historical growth rates, it could still take the UK 32 years to achieve the current OECD average.
In the UK, there would be large economic gains from enhancing the number of women in work. If female participation rates over the UK matched those of the South West region (the consistent top performer for female participation in every year of the Index), the united kingdom could gain £48bn, which is equal to 840,000 jobs.
All regions except Wales showed progress in their Index score between 2021 and 2021, with regions seeing a 2.4 point average increase across the nation. However, this growth was not spread equally across regions, with lower growth seen in those regions with the lowest scores.
The North West, North East, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber scored lower than the UK average. These regions all have a problem with higher than average female unemployment, averaging 4.4% when compared to UK average of 3.9%. Conversely the The west retains first place, followed by Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Ali Breadon, East Midlands Market Senior Partner & Midlands Government and Health Industries Leader at PwC, said: “The East Midlands indicates the largest absolute and relative improvement in the Index score from 2021 to 2021 with the region’s score increasing 5.9 points and it is rank improving from 9th to 5th place.
“This was in contrast to much slower Index growth between 2021 and 2021 in surrounding regions, like the North West, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber, where scores increase typically by a single point.
“Progress within the East Midlands was driven by improvements across every indicator, using the region most notably seeing a 3.5% increase in the proportion of women in the labour force and a 13% fall in the female unemployment rate.
“As the UK government continues to prioritise levelling in the economy to reduce regional economic and social disparities, policy measures that directly support women to attain economic empowerment through work can make a vital contribution.”