Much of the progress made towards gender equality under the coalition government was offset by the impact of austerity on women, writes Anna Sanders. While a number of gender equality policies were brought forward in 2010-5, these were largely symbolic, rather than redistributive in nature.
One month after the 2010 General Election, the newly formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition delivered its Emergency Budget, setting out plans to rapidly reduce the deficit through a series of public spending cuts. The coalition’s commitment to public spending cuts soon raised concerns among gender equality advocates regarding the disproportionate impact this would have on women, who are more reliant on the public sector for income, services, and employment. At the same time, the coalition was headed by a Prime Minister who sought to appoint more women into cabinet, and the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, was noted for wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt. So how did gender equality fare under the 2010-5 coalition?
Legislative progress on status policies
In our recent research, Claire Annesley, Francesca Gains and I find that the coalition introduced a number of legislative initiatives aimed at tackling violence against women and girls. Integral to pushing violence against women onto the governmental agenda was Theresa May. Under May’s stewardship, the coalition introduced a range of legislative changes, including the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (making stalking a specific offence), the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (criminalising the possession of realistic depictions of rape and revenge pornography), and the Serious Crime Act 2015 (which included a mandatory reporting duty for cases of Female Genital Mutilation). In this case, May’s role as Home Secretary and Equalities Secretary supports existing research suggesting that critical government actors can be key to pushing non-costly, symbolic gender equality policies to the forefront of the government’s agenda.
Limited progress on redistributive gender equality policies
Research suggests that redistributive gender equality policies are less likely to gain executive attention when the economy is stagnant, due to their costly implementation. Though some redistributive policies did in fact reach the government agenda, we find that, in each case, they had a limited effect on gender equality. The introduction of the Single Tier Pension, for instance, raised the state pension above Pension Credit level – a policy particularly beneficial to women, since they tend to be poorer than men in later life. Yet extended time out of the labour market due to greater caring responsibilities means that women are less likely than men to have accrued the 35 years of contributions required to receive the full Single Tier Pension payment.
Progress has been similarly mixed on the issue of childcare. The coalition’s tax-free scheme – designed to aid parents with the rising cost of childcare – saw working parents receive up to 20% from the government towards their childcare costs. Such incentives are, however, regressive in nature, with less financial support given to low-paid workers, the majority of whom are women.
Austerity: a negative effect on gender equality
When we look at these policy agendas in the context of austerity, we find that much of the progress made towards gender equality was negated. Significant cuts to local authority funding reversed many of the gains made on violence against women and girls. A report by Jude Towers and Sylvia Walby found that the domestic and sexual abuse sector lost 31% of its local authority funding between 2010 and 2012. Such cuts have reduced the availability of women’s specialist support services across the country, where 32 domestic violence services in England are reported to have closed at least one of their services.
Meanwhile, despite the coalition’s initiatives to reduce childcare costs, access remains an issue. Cuts in local authority funding have contributed to the closure of over 600 Sure Start centres in England between April 2010 and June 2014. Commitments to reducing family welfare have also removed considerable entitlements from women as mothers. These have included cuts to the ‘baby’ element of Child Tax Credits, the tapering of Child Benefit, and the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant – a tax-free payment given to mothers to help with the cost of having a child.
Overall, then, progress towards gender equality under the coalition was a mixed bag. On one hand, a range of initiatives were introduced in regards to violence against girls and women – due, in part, to the presence of a critical actor to drive through legislative change – and some progress was made on childcare and pensions. Yet at the same time, the coalition’s commitment to reducing welfare spending and state intervention limited the effectiveness of gender equality policies that were brought onto the agenda, and reversed progress in several policy domains.
What is the key lesson that governments can learn from this? If governments are to take their commitments to gender equality seriously, they must ensure that legislative change is complemented with fiscal backing for women’s welfare and services. In January 2019, for example, the government announced a new legal definition of domestic abuse, to include economic abuse and control. Though this was a welcome change, no mention was made of reforming its current Universal Credit policy, which leaves women at greater risk of economic abuse due to its payment into a single bank account. While the full impact of austerity is yet to be felt, there is the risk that women’s access to resources will continue to be undermined, and progress towards gender equality will be hindered even further.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with
Anna Sanders is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Manchester.
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