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Society and communities

A year on: working class women and work during the Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic has further exposed deep gender and class inequalities, say professors Tracey Warren and Clare Lyonette, and the government must act if we are to rebuild a fairer society.

A year on from the first national lockdown in the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital, essential but under-valued work performed by working-class women. It has both exposed and intensified the deep gender and class inequalities that, together, negatively impact these women’s working lives. Pandemic pressures have resulted in more job and financial insecurity for working class women, heavier care responsibilities, and real challenges in managing unpaid and paid work.

Moving into the next phase of the pandemic, when job losses, deepening financial pressures, and concerns over children’s education and mental health all come into sharp focus, we need to recognise the pressures and challenges faced by working-class women in order to provide targeted and timely support.

In our project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19 and carried out in partnership with the UK Women’s Budget Group, we followed thousands of women and men in the UK throughout 2020 to look at working lives in the face of the extraordinary and shifting burdens of the pandemic, and to identify any inequalities of gender and class in workers’ experiences. Using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (‘NS-SEC’) to define a ‘working class worker’ group, we combined ‘Semi-routine’ (such as: care-workers, retail assistants, hospital porters) and ‘Routine’ workers (such as: cleaners, waiting staff, bus drivers, bar staff, sewing machinists), and then compared them with employed people in the other class groupings. Our findings and recommendations to policymakers are outlined below.

1. Paid work during the pandemic

Women employed in working class jobs experienced an incredible and mixed combination of challenges during 2020. In June 2020, 60% of working class women were in keyworker roles, the highest proportion of all class groupings, most often in jobs requiring face-to-face contact with others (such as: health and social care, education and childcare), increasing health risks for themselves and for their families. Many others were furloughed and/or in highly precarious labour market positions (over a third of working class women had been furloughed by November, more than twice the proportion of women in managerial and professional jobs).

Far fewer working class than other employed women had flexible working arrangements available to them at work to help manage the intense new pandemic pressures. In November, 86% of working class women were not working from home, compared with 35% of management and professional women. As well as providing greater flexibility, working from home also adds a degree of protection from the risks of regular travel on buses, trains and tubes, and potentially unsafe workplaces.

2. Housework and care

Additional housework and childcare responsibilities have added to the pressures on working-class women, including for those unable to work from home. Higher proportions of working-class women were doing over 20 hours of housework a week, compared with management and professional women workers, and almost two thirds reported having the main responsibility for childcare and home-schooling. The challenges of lockdowns, combined with often cramped home conditions, a lack of good internet access and outside space, are likely to increase stress and burnout. Traditional sources of informal support (such as: grandparents and friends) have been unavailable or severely restricted during successive lockdowns.

3. Finances

The combination of stressful keyworking roles and/or furloughing, the risks and realities of job loss, and cuts in paid hours, have all impacted hard on working-class women. Financially, working class women had by far the lowest weekly earnings of all workers, these low wages were not cushioned by other, higher, incomes in their households, and few were in the position of being able to make regular savings that are essential to building up a financial safety net to fall back on. In comparison with managerial and professional women, almost twice the proportion of working-class women reported experiencing financial hardship in April, rising even further in November. Further Information can be found in the project briefing note.

4. Mental health

One year on, struggling to cope with the many pressures outlined here all suggest a perfect storm which inevitably takes its toll on mental health. While women overall reported higher levels of psychological distress than men over the pandemic year, working class women reported the highest levels of all groups in November 2020, when numbers started to creep up again. The extended lockdown before and after Christmas is likely to have further exacerbated existing levels of distress.

What should government do to support working-class women?

As a result of this ongoing research, our findings clearly demonstrate that if the government is serious about building back better, it needs to take urgent action to protect the employment and incomes of working-class women. Child benefit should be substantially increased and the rates of local housing allowance increased in line with average rents. All workers should be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), and the rate of SSP increased to the Real Living Wage to enable people who are ill or awaiting test results to self-isolate. And the Government should be planning for a care-led recovery – investing in social infrastructure (health, care and education) as well as physical infrastructure. Investment in social infrastructure creates more than twice as many jobs as investment in physical infrastructure and we have seen only too clearly how care is as vital to the economy as roads and rail.

Tracey Warren, Clare Lyonette, and The Women's Budget Group

Professor Tracey Warren, of Nottingham University Business School, is an internationally recognised expert on class and gender inequalities, work-time, domestic work, work-life balance, underemployment, part-time jobs, financial hardship, and policies for equality.

Professor Clare Lyonette, of the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, is an internationally recognised expert in the multi-disciplinary analysis of gender and class at work, working time, domestic labour and care.

The UK Women’s Budget Group is the leading independent organisation in the UK that deals with the impact of policy on women’s lives.

Institute for Policy and Engagement

This blog appears as part of the series from the Institute for Policy and Engagement on the university’s ongoing research contribution to the Covid-19 effort.

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