Perhaps more so than any year before, this international women’s day feels particularly poignant, especially for the UK social housing sector.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women across the world. Working women, particularly those on low incomes, migrant women, disabled women and those from BAME groups, have been particularly badly hurt as our briefing paper on the impacts of the pandemic on women found.
This is despite the fact that women make up the majority of workers in the care sector and other essential services which have been vital in the fight against Covid-19. A staggering 89% of nurses and 84% of care workers are female, while 2.5 million out of 3.2 million workers employed in roles deemed to be at ‘highest risk’ of exposure to Covid-19 are women.
Even so, women’s overrepresentation in precarious and lower paid jobs means they’re more likely to have had their employment prospects negatively impacted. Since March, 16% of mothers have permanently lost their jobs compared to 11% of fathers.
The pandemic has also forced parents into the impossible situation of trying to balance work with childcare responsibilities and home-schooling. During lockdown, mothers were spending 10.3 hours a day home-schooling their children, over two hours more on average than fathers. As recently reported by the Financial Times, two in five working mothers have taken or are considering taking a step back from work.
In housing, as well as work, women have been squeezed. Before the pandemic, women in this country already bore the largest burden of the housing crisis, with many trapped in cycles of debt, inadequate homes, temporary accommodation or abusive relationships.
The median gender pay gap which was 15.9% as of 2020, means that women continue to earn less than men. In the private rented sector women spend on average a huge 19% more of their income on rent than men. This has an even greater impact on women’s chances of home ownership: a woman on median income would need to borrow over 15 times her salary to get a mortgage.
Lack of access to affordable housing is a reason why women make up the majority of lead social housing tenants, and two in every three housing benefit claimants. Women in lower paid, less secure work, with other non-paid caring responsibilities or childcare costs have less ability to pay housing costs.
Few housing choices, as well as lack of financial independence and government cuts to local domestic violence support services trap many women in abusive relationships. This sadly became glaringly apparent at the start of the pandemic in particular, when calls to national domestic abuse helplines rose 25%.
The pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in our society, not least the continued second-class position of many women. However, the pandemic has also taught us lessons. With the profound insights it’s given us we either choose to do nothing, or we can choose to challenge.
As a sector we can choose to safeguard women’s domestic violence services, leasing properties to local domestic abuse charities like believe housing do in County Durham. We can choose to make sure that no family or individual is ever without a home by re-evaluating processes around evictions like ClwydAlyn housing association are doing in Wales. We can choose to provide accessible and high-quality welfare advice to maximise household income and provide sustainable tenancies, which our impact measures show that many housing associations already do.
And more broadly, we can look at inequalities that continue to persist within our own organisations and choose to stand by women asking for better pay for essential labour, such as the thousands of NHS nurses currently facing real-terms pay cuts.
This international women’s day is a good reminder that there are many things our sector can choose to challenge and improve, by working together and being bold.