M&S, John Lewis, and why the first round of Covid cuts are falling on women

Marks and Spencer set to announce hundreds of cuts - TOLGA AKMEN
Marks and Spencer set to announce hundreds of cuts – TOLGA AKMEN

Marks & Spencer, Boots the Chemist, and John Lewis: the last bastions of the high street which, in normal times, most of us still relied on being able to pop into regularly, despite the shift to online shopping. Now, after four months of lockdown, they are under serious threat – as is their predominantly female workforce.

The three heritage retailers are among a rising number announcing major cuts just as lockdown begins to lift, with M&S revealing this week that it is planning to slash more than 900 jobs.

While its food halls remained open throughout lockdown, trading in other parts of the business have been hit, with clothing sales down by 84 per cent year on year at the lowest point. Many of the 27,000 people furloughed by the retailer have now returned to work. But the chief executive, Steve Rowe, warned yesterday of the devastating effects more permanent changes to our shopping habits could have, projecting that while some customer behaviours will return to normal, “others have changed forever”.

John Lewis and Boots reported 1,300 and 4,000 job losses respectively this month, including store closures, while others including the Topshop owner Arcadia, furniture chain Harveys and menswear retailer TM Lewin have confirmed plans for thousands of redundancies.

As the trend towards online shopping has been accelerated and “changes to the shape of the high street brought forward”, M&S chief executive Rowe said the way the company operates had been “transformed”.

But while retailers scramble to regenerate themselves as digital juggernauts, staff on the shop floor are set to become collateral damage. There is an inevitable cost to all this reinvention – and it is bound to disproportionately affect women.

Wholesale and retail trade is the second most common sector of employment for women in the UK (the first is health and social care), accounting for 14 per cent of all working women. Research by think-tank the Resolution Foundation has shown women are more likely to be employed in industries that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, with almost 20 per cent working in sectors that have suffered major job losses and pay cuts, compared to 13 per cent of men.

Women don’t only make up a huge percentage of shop floor staff, they also represent a large proportion of the customers – and if women’s finances take a hit, so too do their spending habits. These latest announcements from the retail industry, then, can be seen as early evidence that women’s lives and careers stand to bear the brunt of this pandemic, as many find their income is slashed and jobs placed at risk – just as home life becomes increasingly demanding.

It’s just one of the myriad ways women have been overlooked in lockdown. As highlighted by the Telegraph’s Equality Check campaign, women (and in particular working mums) have been disproportionately impacted, with research showing mothers have been doing 31 hours extra housework each week (12 hours more than fathers). Seventy per cent have found themselves completely responsible for home-schooling, and many have been caring for elderly relatives alongside all this.

Letter to the Telegraph | Equality Check
Letter to the Telegraph | Equality Check

What’s more, this isn’t only a “women’s issue” – where women are unequally impacted there is always a knock-on effect on the economy. News last week that employers could ask people to return to offices from August 1 (just as the schools break up for summer) was met with great eye rolls from working mothers who now face another month juggling work and childcare, with many nurseries offering reduced provision, and holiday clubs and activities unavailable due to social distancing concerns.

Some nurseries are considering pulling out of offering 30 hours a week of free childcare for working parents because they are having to operate the Government scheme at a loss. The National Day Nurseries Association has warned 71 per cent of its members expect to lose money between now and September, and a further 23 per cent say they will just break even.

Since lockdown began, mothers have become almost 50 per cent more likely than fathers to have lost their job, taken unpaid leave or volunteered to be furloughed, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This lack of support for those trying to navigate family life and work is surely one of the chief reasons why.

Writing in the Telegraph last month, Dame Helena Morrissey warned against a dangerous “ripple effect” that would be created if women’s careers were held back by the pandemic. “We need to remember that if our economy is going to fire on all cylinders again, women must be engaged and fulfilling their potential,” she said.

As British retail jobs hang in the balance, the first round of Covid cuts look set to fall on women.