Recession has hit women the hardest in UK. They face increased unemployment, reduced income and cuts in welfare and social services and are forced to take up more of the care burden
By Geetanjali Gangoli
While the recession hits everyone in different ways, there appears little doubt that in many western societies, it has hit women the hardest. A recent report by Fawcett Society (2011) indicates that women in the United Kingdom (UK) have experienced financial and social hardship as a result of the recession, and the financial cuts to public services and welfare in recent months.
Even before the recession, things were difficult for many women in the UK. Fewer women were employed than men, and more women worked part time than men did. A study in 2007 also indicated that having children has an impact on women taking up full-time positions, with 38 percent of women with dependent children working part-time, compared with only 4 percent of men with dependent children. Further, women were more likely to be paid substantially less than men, especially in the private sector, where the difference between the salaries of men and women has been as high as 60 percent.
Compared to most other countries in the European Union (EU), UK has also not done well in the areas of maternity benefits and child benefits. A study conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting in early 2003 reported that the UK, Greece and Luxembourg are the countries with the lowest level of statutory maternity pay in the European Union. Some improvements to maternity benefits were made in April 2003, but women in the UK continue to get less maternity rights than women in many other countries in the EU.
Following recent cuts in welfare introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, things are getting even bleaker for women in the UK. The February 2011 Labour Market Statistics reveal that twice as many women have lost their jobs in the final quarter of 2011, and women’s unemployment has increased by 18 percent since the start of the recession, while men’s unemployment rose only by 1 percent in the same period.
This follows a global trend, where during recession or periods of economic instability, women are more likely to be laid off work, as their labour is seen as auxiliary, and their primary role is seen as caregivers. In the UK, this has also to do with women’s labour being predominantly clustered in the public sector and this is expected to worsen as Anna Bird, Acting Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society predicts that women will make up two thirds of the estimated 7,00,000 public sector workers expected to lose their jobs by 2015. Further, the impact of job losses is felt even more disproportionately on minority women in the UK.
Women have also started experiencing the impact of spending cuts and welfare benefits. A survey of over 1,000 by UK parenting website Netmums (2011) revealed that 86 percent of respondents have cut spending on themselves. Thirty-eight percent of women say things are so desperate they are struggling to get by. Six in ten have even cut down on food shopping, and some women have started skipping meals so that there is enough food for their children. Single mothers are also hit hard by recent welfare cuts, such as by axing a grant to support lone parents with the costs of training, and this is exacerbated by the high costs of child care in the UK, which makes it economically non viable for single mothers on a low salary to work.
There is some evidence that the welfare cuts have already reduced women’s access to community based services that can be critical for them in times of crisis. Many small community based organizations providing key services in the area of violence against women, including services for minority women and survivors of sexual violence are heavily dependent on funds from local authorities, and some of these services have been hit particularly hard (Walby and Towers, 2012). In real terms, it means that women have reduced access to refuge in case of domestic abuse or confidential helplines in cases of sexual violence. Further, substantial cuts have been announced to legal aid — more than half of legal aid beneficiaries have been women, including in cases of child contact, welfare benefits and immigration.
With more unemployment, reduced family income, fewer welfare provisions and reduced access to community based services women will be forced to sacrifice not just their careers but also their interests for the sake of their families and children and take up more of the care burden.