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Gender Equality Must Be at the Heart of the Budget

Today is International Women’s Day, and across the globe people will be celebrating women’s achievements. However, unlike International Women’s Days that have come before, today is also the day of the International Women’s Strike and, incidentally, the chancellor Phillip Hammond’s first budget.

The coincidence of these events is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, today’s strike by women from both waged and unwaged labour harks back to the birth of International Women’s Day, when women garment workers, many of whom were immigrants, went on strike in Manhattan in 1908. The strike therefore offers an opportunity for us to move away from a brand of feminism concerned with merely celebrating ‘being a woman’, and to recentre working class women’s struggles within feminism – highlighting that ‘women’s work’ is often undervalued and underpaid. It also serves as a reminder that this work is often not paid at all, with women doing the brunt of the unwaged labour – cooking, cleaning and caring – required to keep society going.

What’s this got to do with today’s budget? The link is twofold. Firstly, progress for women is contingent on an economy that both offers them good quality jobs and has the support systems in place that are so necessary for a society that relies on unpaid labour. As such, the budget gives us the perfect opportunity to tie issues of jobs, economic inequality and austerity with women’s equality. Secondly, the budget also reminds us that gender equality is a policy choice.

Gender equality in the context of an economy that constantly generates low paid jobs and insecure work is impossible. While the female employment rate has been steadily improving overtime, the number of women in low paid work has increased twofold since 2008, and high childcare costs are stopping an estimated 135,000 women from returning to work. However, this is not primarily because of employers discriminating against women, rather that certain low paid sectors that disproportionately employ women are growing significantly. And it’s no coincidence that these low paid sectors are also jobs traditionally done for free by mothers. Take the social care sector where the vast majority of the workforce are women and the average annual salary is £24,000 a year - forecasters expect this to be the fastest growing sector up to 2020. Sexism is built into the economy.

Government economic policy has only made the situation worse in recent years. Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group in partnership with the race equality think tank Runnymede Trust found that low paid women, and particularly low paid women of colour, have been hardest hit by public spending cuts. The research shows that by 2020 low income black and Asian women will lose around twice as much money as low income white men as a result of tax and benefit changes. Imagine if we added the costs of further reduced access to women’s shelters and the impacts of the cuts on social care? Austerity is inherently sexist.

This situation could have been easily avoided if the government did impact assessments by income, gender and race to make sure that budgets were progressive. Instead we have a situation where those already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are being further left behind by design. The budget isn’t simply a list of economic policies to increase our economic output, it is an opportunity to build a fairer society.

The chancellor should use International Women’s Day as a chance to announce policy measures that will undo some of the damage that his party has inflicted and encourage good job growth. Otherwise, this government will be forever known as the government that turned the clock back on gender equality.