The pandemic has had a large effect on the labour market, with a rise in unemployment, economic inactivity and redundancies. Women are more likely to work in the most affected sectors and more women have been furloughed. Mothers and women from minority ethnic groups have been especially impacted.

On International Women’s Day 2021 we examine how the labour market has changed for women since the start of the pandemic, which women are most affected, and what these changes might mean for the future of women in work.

Covid-19 and women in work

To measure the impact of the coronavirus on jobs, we can compare data from the ONS from the quarter just before the pandemic began, January-March 2020, with the latest quarter, October-December 2020.

Women’s employment has fallen since the start of the pandemic

232,000 fewer women were employed in October-December 2020 than in January-March 2020, a fall of 1.5%. The employment rate for women (percentage of women aged 16-64) dropped from 72.6% in January-March 2020 to 71.8% in October-December 2020.

In comparison, although more men than women are employed, employment for men has dropped by a larger percent: 2.2%. The employment rate for men decreased from 80.1% January-March 2020 to 78.2% in October-December 2020.

A chart shows employment rate for men and women aged 16-64 in 2020
Source: ONS, Labour market bulletin, Table A02

This drop in employment is driven by a fall in part-time work

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of women in part-time employment has decreased by 541,000. However, women in full-time employment has increased by 309,000, while both part-time and full-time employment for men decreased. The reason for this increase is still unclear, but it could be due to a movement from self-employed to employee status.

A chart shows changes in full-time and part-time employment since Q4 2019 for women aged 16+
Source: ONS, Labour market bulletin, Table A02.

Women and men have seen a similar rise in unemployment, but men have seen a bigger increase in inactivity

Unemployment levels for women rose by 174,000 since the start of the pandemic, an increase of 28%. Economic inactivity levels (people out of work and not looking for work) increased by 1.4%.
Unemployment has increased by around the same proportion for men (27%) as women (28%), but men have seen a larger rise in economic inactivity, an increase of 4%.

A chart shows unemployment rate and economic inactivity rates for men and women in 2020
Source: ONS, Labour market bulletin, Table A02

Redundancies have risen sharply for both women and men

Redundancy levels for women rose from 46,000 in January-March 2020 to 143,000 in October-December 2020, an increase of 212%. In the same period, redundancies for men increased by 229%.

A chart shows redundancy rate per thousand between 2019 and 2020 for mean and women
Source: ONS, Redundancies levels and rates (seasonally adjusted), 23 February 2021

More women hold jobs eligible for furlough

At 31 January 2021, 2.32 million jobs held by women were on furlough on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), 15% of eligible jobs.

This is compared to 2.18 million (also 15%) jobs held by men. Since the start of the CJRS, for the most part, slightly more jobs held by women have been furloughed than men.

A chart show jobs furloughed by day and gender between July 2020 and January 2021, showing slightly more jobs held by women have been furloughed than men.
Source: HMRC, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics: January 2021- data tables, 28 January 2021.

The reason why more women are furloughed than men, but furlough rates are the same, is because more women hold jobs eligible for furlough.

In 2019, 57% of workers in sectors subsequently shut down by the pandemic were women. This compared to a workforce average of 48%. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, women were about one third more likely to work in a sector that was shut down by the pandemic than men.

The Fawcett Society has raised concerns that jobs in sectors traditionally dominated by women like hospitality, retail and tourism may not return after the pandemic. The Women and Equalities Committee’s report in February 2021 noted that women are traditionally underrepresented in sectors that have been singled out for Government investment.

Some women have been particularly affected

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by May 2020, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since March, and were more likely to have been furloughed.

The Fawcett Society also found 35% of working mothers have lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare support during the pandemic.

The Fawcett Society found that half of employed women from minority ethnic groups and 43% of employed women from White ethnic groups are worried about job or promotion prospects due to the pandemic. This compared with 35% of employed White men. The data does not state if White minority ethnic groups are included in the 43%.

Flexible working could be a positive outcome of the pandemic

According to the Fawcett Society, flexibility around working hours and location is key to balancing paid work with unpaid care work, of which women do the bulk.

According to TUC, before the pandemic, only 40% of workers could choose flexible hours, and 30% of requests for flexible working were turned down.

Before the pandemic, 20% of workers were doing some work at home, but during the first lockdown in March-May, around 50% of people who continued to work did so from home, with similar proportions of men and women doing so.

The Fawcett Society said:

Post-pandemic, we need to move to a new normal for flexible working which allows workers to adopt a hybrid model of home and workplace flexibility as well as flexing their working hours

A Women and Equalities Committee report warns that working from home risks “permanent home workers being left out of the career ladder,” but concludes that working from home should nonetheless be made easier.

About the author: Brigid Francis-Devine is a researcher at the House of Commons Library and specialises in labour markets, poverty and inequality.

Photo by Christina on Unsplash