Women working more hours in Covid crisis than first thought, study finds

Full-time female employment in UK has actually risen over the crisis as average working hours slip less than men

Women’s average working hours in the UK have taken a far smaller hit during the pandemic than men’s, according to the Resolution Foundation.

Defying predictions of a “shecession” at the start of the pandemic, the thinktank’s quarterly labour market report found that women were not as hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic as initially thought.

Early evidence suggested that women – many of whom work in badly affected, low-paying sectors such as retail – were significantly more likely than men to lose their jobs. However, while the situation for working mothers has been difficult, a different picture has emerged for women as a whole over the past year.

The employment rate among men has fallen by 2.4% since the start of the crisis, driven by a big drop in self-employment. This is a much sharper drop than the 0.8% decline for women. Full-time female employment has actually increased over the course of the crisis.

And while working hours have fallen overall during the pandemic, the average woman without children was working more than her pre-crisis hours by the start of 2021, with an average increase of 5% since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Overall, the fall in women’s total hours worked has been around a third smaller than the decline in men’s hours. The thinktank said this was partly because of women’s dominance in the public sector, including education and health, where they account for 70% of the workforce, and where employment has been relatively steady.

It also reflects the continuation of pre-crisis trends, as women have worked longer hours to protect stagnant household incomes.

However, the picture is different for working parents. Last July, when businesses began to reopen but schools remained closed, mothers’ working hours were down by almost a quarter (24%) on their pre-crisis level, a fall four times as large as that for fathers (down 6%) and almost twice as big as that of non-parents (down 13%).

While the gap between mothers and fathers had largely closed by January, almost one in five (18%) of mothers said they had adjusted their working patterns to accommodate childcare or home schooling, compared with 13% of fathers.

The UK jobs market is looking brighter, as retail and most of hospitality have opened up since mid-April. Payroll employment has risen for five consecutive months and vacancies are recovering, although they remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to official figures.

Hannah Slaughter, economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “The overall impact of the crisis has been much more equal between the genders than expected. But with the crisis still with us, and the future of home working unclear, the lasting gender impact of the crisis is still highly uncertain.”

The thinktank noted that fewer women than men say they want to return to the office full time – a change that could potentially damage their long-term career prospects if office presence continues to influence pay rises and promotions.

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