Is gendered austerity finally on the political agenda?

The 2013 Green Party conference made women and austerity one of its themes, while a new report from the Women’s Budget Group calls for a ‘Plan F’ to tackle the impact of the crisis on women's lives.  Is gendered austerity finally gaining the attention of political parties?

Heather McRobie
24 September 2013

Amongst women’s organisations and organisations resisting and mapping the damage of austerity, the  case has been cumulatively built over the last two years that one of the negative impacts of austerity is that is has been gendered, with cuts to benefits and services disproportionately harming women, and within that disproportionately harming BME women, disabled women, migrant women and women in positions of social marginalisation. From job losses in the public sector, where women made up the majority of employees on the front line of job cuts, to cuts to services and benefits vital for women, the social ruptures variously created or deepened by the Coalition’s programme have fallen in large part on women.

As the impact of the cuts came to the surface of daily lives, its role in entrenching inequalities – among them gender inequalities – played out in areas from pre-school provisions for children to cuts to domestic violence shelters that predominantly affect women, to an increase in the anxious precarity of temporary employment that fell in large part on female workers.

As Natalie Bennett of Green Party Women has outlined, the changes to working tax credits and cuts in benefits as a result of the Coalition spending review meant lone parents lost out relative to other household types – at the time 92% of lone parents were female.  In 2012, maternity rights campaign group Maternity Action documented how the austerity programme was even harming maternity service provisions, a blow to the Conservative attempt to position itself as the party of the (traditional) ‘family’.

These gendered dimensions to the cuts were noted, documented and campaigned against by a large section of organisations and actors from feminist groups such as the Fawcett Society to anti-cuts organisations (UKUncut groups and actions highlighted the Coalition’s neglect of gender in their Comprehensive Spending Review) to campaigners against changes to tax credits and within campaigns such as those against the NHS reforms. 

Yet such discussions felt far removed from the concerns of political parties during the first two years of the Coalition government, as the government itself looked increasingly removed from the make-up and priorities of the country.

The Green Party conference in Brighton earlier this month, however, made women and austerity the focus of one of its discussions, providing an opportunity to both update the analysis of how austerity measures are affecting women in 2013, and to reflect on how the political parties have understood and responded to gendered austerity. During the panel discussion on gender and austerity, Kat Banyard, author of ‘The Equality Illusion’ and founder of UK Feminista, raised the issue of how different negative impacts of austerity interplay in women’s lives to curtail their quality of life – and how this could play out over a woman’s life – using the example of the relationship between changes to hour-contracts and changes to pensions. 

Several speakers at the women and austerity panel raised the issue of the interplay between gendered austerity and social attitudes, encouraged by mainstream political discourse and the media, on people receiving state benefits and towards immigrants, analysing how the public demonization of those receiving benefits, particularly single mothers, reached a ‘low point’ in 2012. (Author J K Rowling wrote in an article several days later that she had felt unfairly stigmatised as a single mother and that this stigmatisation is in resurgence under the current government).

Local Green Party Councillor Ash Haynes brought up the topic of how a meaningful response to damaging austerity measures must take an intersectional approach, noting how particularly on key issues such as pensions changes the factor of gender interplays with social exclusion, with the lower paid more likely to be affected and within that precarious female workers particularly hard-hit. 

The Green Party conference discussion on women and austerity came just as a new poll by Mori for online community site Mumsnet showed how support for the Conservatives amongst women had dropped significantly since the 2010 election dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’, with Conservatives currently trailing female voters by 13%, with the decline in support for the Conservatives amongst women cutting across age groups and professional backgrounds. The decline has been attributed variously to increasingly out-of-touch Conservative political discourse on women and changes to child benefits and childcare provisions.

The Green Party conference also raised the question of whether ‘gendered austerity’ may finally tip to becoming a vote-winning issue in the next general election, as parties appeal to women who have felt the impact of the cuts since 2010.

Shortly after the conference, gendered austerity received renewed focus due to the release of a report by the independent Women’s Budget Group which outlines how cuts to benefits, services and the nature of the economic recovery continue to affect women more severely than men. Updating its earlier research into austerity and gender, Women’s Budget Group analysed the June 2013 UK government spending round, and concluded that women benefit the least from the government’s investment in physical infrastructure. It also noted that the shift in employment from public sector to private sector “worsens women’s labour market position” and women continued to be harshly affected by “cuts to public services and social security entitlements.” The group has called for a ‘Plan F’ to reverse the damage of gendered austerity and ensure economic recovery for women, including raising the minimum wage to a living wage and repealing social security measures which hurt women, such as the bedroom tax.

The policies of the last three years have dealt a blow to gender equality that will take concerted effort to repair.  The impact of austerity on gender equality may finally be gaining the attention of political parties, but in the meantime the currently reality of gendered austerity plays out in all aspects of women’s lives.

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