Comment: Women are shock absorbers for cuts

For all the government's faux concern about women bearing the brunt of the cuts, actions speak louder than words.

By Anna Bird

In March 2008, the then leader of the opposition announced that were he prime minister, a third of his ministers would be women.

Three years later, a year and a half into his term as prime minister and David Cameron has yet to honour his promise. Just four out of 23 cabinet ministers are female – that's one in five, a worse ratio than across parliament as a whole: one in four MPs are female. To put that in context, 18 members of the cabinet are millionaires.

Meanwhile, the policies being pursued by the coalition risk turning back time on women's equality. It is women who are bearing the brunt of job losses – female unemployment is at its highest since 1988, more than a million women are now out of work. Women are also worst hit by the drastic freezing, slashing and capping of so many vital benefits – research by the House of Common's library found some 72% of the cuts made to benefits in the chancellor's notorious 'emergency budget' are coming from women's pockets.

At the same time, many of the public services women rely on are being rolled back. Because women still tend to do the lion's share of caring for kids and elderly parents, they are most affected by cuts to services such as wheels on meals and wrap-around childcare – and many are already finding it harder to combine work with other responsibilities as these vital support services dry up.

Women are being forced to act as shock absorbers for the cuts – and this hasn't gone unnoticed.

A leaked memo this week revealed anxiety at the heart of government about their standing with women: "We know from a range of polls that women are significantly more negative about the government than men … a range of policies we have pursued … are seen as having hit women hard."

What to do? In the first instance, Fawcett welcomes government recognition that women feel targeted by cuts in public spending. They're right to be concerned. But it's not about perception – it's about the reality of life for women up and down the country.

As jobs dry up, benefits are cut, and services rolled back many women –who let's not forget were on average already earning and living on less than most men – have found themselves worse off than ever before. Women want jobs, they want to earn a living wage, support their children, contribute to the household budget, have control over their finances. They need financial security, economic independence and prospects. But the government seems to think an exercise in spin – or at best a few cheap wins – is called for.

Anna Bird is acting chief executive of the Fawcett Society.

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