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Why the government is in danger of alienating working women

Annie Peate

07 November 2011

The campaign for increased recognition of the disproportionate effects austerity measures are having on female employment gained momentum on Friday with the publication of a new report by the Fawcett Society. Endorsed by a myriad of voluntary and charitable organisations, A Life Raft for Women’s Equality is a compelling and succinct policy piece that urges the government to take immediate steps to address what it understands as a significant threat to women’s hard-fought equality.

The recommendations – which can and should, according to the Fawcett’s, be implemented before or at the March 2012 budget – reflect the true diversity of the challenges facing women in contemporary society. For example, alongside calls to provide better support to families by ring fencing the Sure Start grant to local authorities and restoring child benefit to its pre-recession level (plus the value of inflation when the freeze ends in 2014), they also warn against cuts to local women’s services, especially those which provide support to victims of violence.

Other recommendations include ensuring low-income mothers aren’t forced out of the labour market as a result of unaffordable childcare, by reinstating the childcare element of Working Tax Credit to its pre-April 2011 level of 80%, and providing up to 80% of childcare costs up to present weekly limits under the new Universal Credit System. And of course, no contemporary robust analysis of women’s support services would be complete without emphasising the need for government to properly engage with trade unions around proposed reform to public sector pensions - a sector where women predominate, and therefore are in danger of losing out.

However, as the report points out in its concluding paragraph, these recommendations only address the tip of a much larger iceberg, longstanding issues such as equal pay, underrepresentation in local and national government, absence from high-level business positions, public sector redundancies, pregnancy discrimination and more. Some even go as far as lambasting the government for ignoring its legal duty to protect and advance women’s human rights. 

But are policymakers listening? The response of MPs has been mixed at best, appearing at times to simultaneously engage and overlook the gender agenda. But the fact remains that the cuts to employment, benefits and support services which currently allow women to make up a significant, value-generating portion of the workforce, and therefore a vital component of the UK economy, are at considerable risk. 

The real issue is that the government insists on addressing the symptom rather than the cause, effectively illustrated by Theresa May’s announcement of a new 2 million pound scheme to provide 5,000 trained business mentors to budding female entrepreneurs. The lack of women in business is more nuanced then simply not knowing how to fill in a tax return. What they may require instead, for example, is adequate, affordable childcare. 

The government is in significant danger of alienating working women up and down the UK. Before they can run, they must first learn to walk, and that begins with working closely with organisations such as the Fawcett Society to produce fair, practical policies addressing the real issues affecting women in these deficit reducing times. If solutions to women’s employment issues aren’t found soon, it may be the government who’s ultimately left holding the baby.