W(h)ither women’s work

Women’s factory work in Slough, 1941
Photo from wikimedia commons

It might be a long time, or maybe never, since you last bought an item of clothing in store from Debenhams or BHS; but if you did, the chances are you would have been be served by a woman. One of the tropes currently repeated is that the Covid-19 crisis is making some shifts happen much more quickly than before – internet shopping, working from home and telemedicine.

In January 2020 retail was the largest source of private sector employment in the UK; employing 2.8million people, 58% of whom are women. Since 2010, the majority of jobs lost in retail were occupied by women, as the majority of warehouse workers and delivery drivers are men.

In some quarters there is still a view that a shop job is ‘pin money for women, but as Sir Philip Green’s empire is crashing down I keep hearing that in many households it is these jobs that ‘put the food on the table’.

Let’s be clear, no job losses are good news; whether it’s women’s or men’s work, young or older people, full-time or part time. But too much of our outdated social welfare structure is predicated on a four person household with Dad going out to work, Mum at home or working part time and two kiddies at school. There are very few households that fit that model today.

Looking at the work profile of the North East of England in June 2020, 79.9% of men aged between 16-64 were described as economically active, with the figure for women being 72.3%. However, the average weekly pay for male full-time workers was £548 but £489 for women. Some of the very recent data indicates that the largest recent percentage increase in unemployment to September 2020, was amongst women aged over fifty.

Clearly one of the potential growth areas for employment will be in social care. The majority of the care workforce, both paid and unpaid, are women. The majority of those in need of care are women. The paid care sector faces a recruitment and retention crisis due to the poor pay, terms and conditions of service and Brexit is very likely to make this worse. It has been estimated that six million more social care workers will be needed by 2022. Local councils that are responsible for commissioning social care are suffering after ten years of austerity and inadequate funding. Now they are also spiralling into further economic decline because of the demand of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The supply of nursing, residential and domiciliary care becomes more fragile and significant companies are pulling out of the ‘market’.

Maternity rights seem to be returning to the 1960s with increasing numbers of women losing their jobs whilst pregnant (6). Even before Covid-19 hit, the childcare system in England was not fit for purpose and failed to meet the needs of children, parents and the economy. Inevitably children with the most disadvantages get the greatest benefits from high-quality childcare. Access and affordability are key issues and the crisis has forced a number of childcare businesses into closing. This is a triple whammy as 98% of the childcare workforce is female , 81% of mothers require formal childcare to go to work, and by July only half had access to childcare.

Earlier this year when parents had to work from home and also educate their children, the ONS (Office for National Statistics) data in July 2020 demonstrated that fathers were doing more of the ‘enjoyable’ childcare, whilst mothers were still doing the majority of childcare, especially for younger children (78% more). Housework (which most people do not enjoy) continued to be done overwhelmingly by women.


Although it’s been illegal in the UK to pay women less than men for fifty years, a 15.5% gender pay gap still exists. This year the Equal Pay Day in the UK was 20 November, the day women effectively start to work for free because, on average, they are paid less than men. Sadly there will be many redundancies after furlough and the perilous state of childcare means a disproportionate number of these are likely to fall on women.

Currently you need thirty-five years of National Insurance payments or credits to be able to claim the full State Pension in retirement. There is a significant number of women who did not return to work after having their child but did not apply for Child Benefit, thinking they would not entitled to receive it when the universality element was dropped in 2013. A parent from a higher income household can still claim for Child Benefit so that Class 3 National Insurance credits are received (until the youngest child is twelve years old), but then opt out of payment or repay through a tax charge. Many people are still not aware of this provision and the fragility of work means many people will not have sufficient National Insurance payments or credits for a full State Pension.

The pension gap and the gender pay gap for women is still significant. The Pensions Policy Institute has done major research on this issue and report that in their early sixties, the median private pension wealth of women is one third of men’s private pension wealth.  This is partly because because of the gender pay gap and the time women take off paid work having children. The average savings pot (other savings and investments) is £39,000 for men and £22,000 for women, having risen in the last three years for men, and fallen for women (Close Brothers July 2020). Unfortunately, those of us living in the North East have the lowest pension pot and savings, and we are the least likely to know the value of our pension schemes. As money gets tighter for many people, it appears women are more likely to decrease their pension contribution in the next few months (Aegon July 2020).

Of course there should be an equal state pension age for men and women, but the current position is that many women believed they would be retiring at sixty and the way the change was implemented particularly disadvantages those women born in the 1950s. The 3.8 million women born in this decade (open declaration I am 64) were not given sufficient time to plan for this change  to be implemented. Ironically until the early 1990s, many women were not entitled to the same company pension scheme access or benefits as men . Securing work at any age is becoming increasingly difficult, but when you are over sixty it is much harder. 

So the world of work is shifting – the precarious nature of too many jobs, working from home, major shifts in employment sectors, the current downturn in the leisure and hospitality sector, key changes in retail, a social insecurity system of Universal Credit, poor childcare provision, the gender pay gap and gender pension gaps mean that women in work face a tougher time in the years ahead.

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