Decades of progress made by women in the workplace could unravel in the pandemic as an unwanted and largely unnoticed side-effect of the virus.
A few days ago, the media was dominated by the terrible news of up to 7,000 job losses at Marks & Spencer.
What went largely unsaid is that most of those affected will be women.
Widening gender gap: Mothers spent less time on paid jobs in lockdown and more on household chores than fathers
Just under three-quarters of customer service assistants at the chain are female, according to the latest annual report.
M&S has been a solid, decent employer for generations of women. So too has John Lewis, which is closing eight stores and cutting up to 1,300 jobs. It’s a similar story at Debenhams, where 14,000 jobs are on the line and at Boots where 4,000 face the axe.
Retail is the largest private-sector employer in the UK, providing work to three million people, mostly women. Two-thirds – the majority female – work part-time.
So the questions being raised about the future of bricks-and-mortar retail are also questions about women’s livelihoods.
The pandemic has accelerated the existing shift to online shopping. The wide-ranging consequences include the loss of women’s jobs – and more roles filled by men.
From 2011 to 2018, more than 100,000 sales and customer services roles were lost, according to research last year from the Royal Society of Arts. Most of the vanishing jobs had been occupied by women.
Over the same period, the switch to online led to the creation of 40,000 jobs. Most were for delivery drivers, warehousing and logistics, taken up largely by men.
None of this is deliberate discrimination. Technology is transforming shopping and women’s jobs look like collateral damage.
As they seek to respond to the changes, large retailers such as supermarkets are moving away from the old model where employees had regular shifts and worked on a particular department, job or counter.
Instead, workers are increasingly expected to be deployed whenever and wherever they are needed at a store, or to work in a number of different stores in their local area.
This can have benefits, such as widening people’s skill sets.
Taking flexibility one step further, there are apps that could, for instance, allow sales staff to operate as self-employed gig workers who can do shifts for more than one company – the retail equivalent of Uber drivers. There may be far-reaching changes for all employees, male and female.
But if the local high street disappears and the jobs created are for drone controllers or artificial intelligence trend forecasters, then employment is likely to shift to the young and the male – unless, of course, an effort is made to ensure women and older people are given opportunities and training.
Another female-dominated sector that was hit hard is beauty. Salons waited longer than pubs to reopen, even though the sector is worth more than £28billion to the economy.
School and nursery closures have a big effect on all parents, but mothers bear the brunt. They are more likely to have resigned, lost their job, or been furloughed than fathers, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says.
Mothers spent less time on paid jobs in lockdown and more on household chores than fathers. The gender gap widened so that mums who usually make 80p for every £1 earned by fathers now only receive 70p.
The risk is that if the pandemic’s patterns of job losses, work and childcare become set, women’s long-term earnings and career prospects will suffer. This outbreak of accidental sexism must be tackled, or the clock could be turned back on years of battling for equality.