Inequality problems have been made worse for many women during the pandemic with government economic support policies “skewed towards men”, MPs have found.
The report by the Commons women and inequalities committee said that while ministers acted quickly to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits, gender disparities were ignored.
Pregnant women and new mothers in particular may have faced discriminatory and potentially unlawful treatment, it said.
The report warned that plans for economic recovery risked “turning the clock back” unless the equality impact of every policy is assessed.
MPs said the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis had been different for men and women because of existing inequalities, the over-representation of women in certain types of work, and actions the government has taken.
It pointed to evidence that women were more likely to be employed in sectors shut down during the pandemic and therefore more at risk of job loss or being placed on furlough.
The MPs also found that women were disproportionately employed in less secure work arrangements such as zero hours contracts or temporary employment – arrangements where workers have suffered bigger falls in earnings or hours during the pandemic.
In addition, there was evidence that the gap between the number of childcare hours provided by men and women had grown, putting additional pressure on working mothers.
Meanwhile, concerns were raised about some pregnant women or those on maternity leave being forced to take unpaid leave or start maternity leave early, or being placed on sick leave rather than being furloughed.
The MPs also pointed to the apparently “heavily gendered” focus of the economic recovery plan, with “build, build, build” rhetoric emphasising industries such as construction.
It cited evidence suggesting that in the short term a more immediate way of dealing with the crisis of job losses in retail and hospitality would be investment in childcare.
Caroline Nokes, chair of the committee, said: “The message from our evidence is clear: government policies have repeatedly skewed towards men – and it keeps happening.
“The government must start actively analysing and assessing the equality impact of every policy, or it risks turning the clock back.”
The report made a series of recommendations including more work on tackling inequality in male-dominated sectors, retraining for mothers looking for jobs in the most viable sectors, and employment law changes to make it easier to request flexible working.
Commenting on the findings, Claire Walker, British Chambers of Commerce co-executive director, said: “More must be done to ensure women are able to balance caring and work commitments, retain their jobs, progress in their careers and contribute to our economic recovery.
“Economic growth will depend on access to high quality, affordable childcare.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ”Women have been put in an impossible situation during the pandemic – often expected to work and look after children at the same time.
“Too many working mums are having to cut their hours or being forced to leave their jobs because they cannot manage.”
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