A discriminatory bun in the oven

A discriminatory bun in the oven

A discriminatory bun in the oven

by Celine Thomas

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Among the self-employed, a virtual sigh of relief was audible on Twitter when the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced after weeks of uncertainty that they would receive a job retention package on broadly equal terms with that offered to furloughed employees. But even before the first wave of applause had hushed, some were already sounding the alarm. The Chancellor had left substantial swathes of the self-employed out of his plan and short-changed others; not least women who recently took maternity leave.

Under Mr Sunak’s scheme, the self-employed will receive financial support equal to eighty percent of taxable trading profits, calculated as an average of the previous three tax years and capped at £2,500 p.m. All good, unless you’re one of the many women for whom those three years include a period of maternity leave, in which case your average profits are very likely to have been substantially brought down.

Self-employed women know only too well how hard it is to take time out after a baby, often trying to keep their business ticking-over with a babe in arms.  A friend of mine, Cheryl, is a self-employed leadership coach working mainly with women leaders and entrepreneurs. Her son is now three and for the first six months of his life, Cheryl took a complete break from paid client work but managed to balance caring for her son with developing her business as he napped. Cheryl told me she felt grateful at first that the self-employed were being offered a life-line by the government; reflecting later that even her instinctive gratitude was a consequence of expecting so little as a self-employed woman. But the rules mean that for every month that this crisis continues Cheryl will get 33% less in financial support than she would have done if she hadn’t been on maternity leave in 2016/17. 

The Chancellor’s oversight is a bitter pill for women who often end up in self-employment precisely because they hope to achieve a better work/family balance – something that Cheryl says was one of her key motivations for launching her own business. Since the financial crash in 2008, women have been taking up self-employment at a faster rate than men. This sounds like a good-news story of British entrepreneurship and the government would love you to believe that. But far from the glamour of Dragons’ Den, women in self-employment are often childminders, nursery workers, carers, cleaners and clerical workers – those least valued in our economy. 

The facts are that women-led businesses, taken as a whole, are significantly smaller than those led by men. The self-employed pay-gap is even more gaping than among the employed, with average earnings for self-employed women as little as £9, 800 compared with men at £17,000. For this reason, and because their businesses tend to be small and often home-based, women-led enterprises will be particularly vulnerable during this pandemic.

I understand that the government is tackling a gigantean challenge in desperate circumstances. But I can’t understand the justification for the gendered inequality this policy perpetuates. In spite of petitioning and public outcry there continues to be a wilful blindness by the government. Yet putting this right would surely be child’s play.

Celine Thomas is the Women's Equality Party Spokesperson for Equal Pay and Opportunity

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