Comment: why this government is bad for gender equality

The 2008 crisis and subsequent austerity changed the way the government tackled gender inequality


For the last five years, women’s groups, policy experts and economists have documented the detrimental effect of the government’s austerity policies on women’s purses.

Of the £34bn raised from households over the next five years, £24bn will come from women’s pockets. Meanwhile women are less likely to benefit from tax increases and unlikely to work in great numbers in the few industries where the government is spending to create jobs.

With more cuts due to be announced tomorrow, the pain for women will likely continue. Even worse, the continued pummeling of women’s financial security and independence will almost certainly set back gender equality gains made in recent decades.

This was a recurring theme during the LSE Gender Institute’s Commission on Gender, Inequality and Power. Over the course of a year, the Commission brought together experts, campaigners, activists, researchers and professionals from academia, politics, the law, media and the economy to present evidence on the character of inequality and the nature of power imbalances between men and women.

A key finding was that the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent move into austerity was decisive in changing the way that the government tackled gender inequality. Prior to this point there was an unprecedented rise in female employment and a rise in double income households.

From the late nineties onwards, successive government policies helped push up the number of lone parents of small children in work, with the result that more women were in paid employment.

When the recession hit, much of the policy effort to promote consumer demand and protect jobs early on in 2009/10 was focused on a narrow range of sectors, particularly construction and automobiles, which favour male employment.

Meanwhile efforts to reduce public spending have hurt women most because they are more likely to use state services and rely on social security owing to a lifetime of low pay and unpaid care work.

Women are more likely to be in precarious or low-paid positions, making up 73.9 per cent of all part time employees and 36.7 per cent of full time employees.

Add to this the disappearance of gender mainstreaming policies when the crisis hit. Suddenly, important steps like Equality Impact Assessments were a luxury.

David Cameron told the CBI in 2012: “I care about making sure we treat people equally. But … caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense. We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making policy. We don’t need all this extra tick box stuff. So I can tell you today we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments.”

Except, time and again when devising policy, the smart people in Whitehall and ministers from David Cameron’s governments fail to recognise, understand or respond to the gendered processes in the family and the economy that exacerbate gendered vulnerabilities and inequalities.

To put it another way, they fail to consider that a dramatic, immediate cut to tax credits might mean a low paid working mother of young children having to choose between feeding herself, feeding the children and paying the rent.

Key to the Commission’s thinking is the importance of gender equality in creating a better society for all. For that to happen social goals must be the target of economic policy. This is about more than opposing austerity – it is about rethinking what we attach economic value to.

That means:

  • Putting as high a value on social infrastructure – care, education, health for example – as we do on physical infrastructure (transport, large construction projects).
  • Recognising the importance of gender mainstreaming. Gender budgeting, for example, identifies the impact of policies on individuals, which would help better identify the distributive impact of economic policy making.
  • Recognising the economic and social value of care work, paid and unpaid. One of the Commission’s more radical proposals is for a national care service. ‘Care provision is vital to individual and social well-being,’ the report says, ‘and resolving the care question is fundamental to redressing and ultimately resolving gender inequality. Everybody requires care at some point in their lives and a majority of people provide care at some stage. Similar to street lighting it is a matter for public, collectivised support.’

Tomorrow we learn more about George Osborne’s plans to prepare the economy for the next financial crisis. But what Britain really needs is an economic plan for building a better society; looking after women means looking after everyone.

Devising economic policy with a view to one day spending billions to bail out failing banks will only benefit the few.

Read the LSE Gender Institute’s final report ‘Confronting Gender Inequality’ here and join the discussion online #LSEtalksGender

Follow the Women’s Budget Group for a gender assessment of tomorrow’s spending review @WomensBudgetGrp

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a writer and reporter and worked with the LSE Gender Institute’s Commission on Gender, Inequality and Power.  Follow her on Twitter

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4 Responses to “Comment: why this government is bad for gender equality”

  1. Bradley EC

    Do you really think using single issue categories is the best way to advance progressive thinking? Has not the last forty years shown that the single issue fetishism has destroyed progressive ideology?


    Rebecca, we are short of plumbers. Try your hand and work for a living.

  3. madasafish

    I welcome Rebecca’s input in this article.
    It shows us how insular and narrow minded women’s issues groups are.

    And how little they will achieve with such attitudes.

    She should stop writing and take up a job which will show men how women are the equal or superior of men..

  4. Hello – reporting & writing

    […] wrote on the subject for Left Foot Forward and the New Statesman when George Osborne published his Spending Review last […]

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