Four years after the 2010 election and the government’s track record on equality is patchy at best. For women’s equality, in particular, years of slow but steady progress has begun to unravel. A staggering 80 per cent of the money saved through changes to the welfare system is coming from women’s pockets, while what money is going back into the system is disproportionately benefitting men. (1)
Our standing in the labour market has also come under threat, with public sector jobs cuts hitting women hardest. Most damningly of all, the pay gap has widened for the first time in five years: more than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, women now earn an average 16 per cent less than men. (2)
At the same time, some of the most vulnerable women in the UK have nowhere to turn as councils around the country slash funding for vital programmes, such as violence against women support services. (3) Some positives – notably the introduction of equal marriage, increased support for childcare costs and the extending of the right to request flexible working – are being undermined by an economic programme that is forcing women to act as shock absorbers for the cuts.
The appointment of a new minister for women is an opportunity to re-focus, and push women’s equality to the front of the government’s agenda.
While Nicky Morgan won’t have a magic wand, a fresh minister could make a real difference. Her position as Financial Secretary to the Treasury should also prove useful when it comes to mitigating some of the worse effects of austerity.
Fawcett’s to-do list includes:
- Thinking again about paying down the deficit primarily through public spending cuts. The current 80:20 ratio straightaway hits women hardest as we rely more heavily on the state for financial support due to being poorer and having greater caring responsibilities – benefits typically make up a fifth of women’s incomes as opposed to a tenth of men’s. (4)
- Widening government investment to beyond those industries where men dominate the workforce (such as infrastructure) – and doing more to challenge gender segregation in the workplace.
- Taking urgent action to protect the most vulnerable women by protecting violence against women services from local authority cuts.
- Ensuring that all spending decisions are consider in light of what they will mean for equality between different groups, including men and women so conducting thorough “impact assessments”.
- Effectively tackling the shame that is a widening pay gap by enacting the Equality Act requirement that big business monitor and publicise their own gaps and by taking action to improve low pay
These are just a top five to be going on with, and Nicky Morgan’s in-tray will no doubt be bulging, but capitalising on the energy a new appointment brings could deliver real progress.
House of Commons research quoted in the Independent 8 March 2014 found tax and benefit changes brought in under the coalition government have raised a net £3.047bn (21 per cent) from men and £11.628bn (79 per cent) from women.
Pay gap: ONS figures published in November 2013 found that: Men’s mean gross hourly earnings (excluding overtime) were £16.91 in April 2013, up 2.3 per cent from £16.52 in 2012. Women’s mean hourly earnings increased by 1.3 per cent to £14.25 compared with £14.07 in 2012. This means that the gender pay difference for full-time employees widened to 15.7 per cent from 14.8 per cent in 2012.
Thirty-one percent of the funding to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector from local authorities was cut between 2010/11 to 2011/12, ‘Measuring the impact of cuts in public expenditure on the provision of services to prevent violence against women and girls’, Professor Sylvia Walby, January 2012
The Fawcett Society, Who Benefits?: A gender analysis of the UK benefits and tax credits system, April 2006.
Daisy Sands is head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society