‘Shock absorbers of poverty’: women’s lives cut short by their unequal position in society | Inequality

Women who speak out about gender inequality are often dismissed, especially in England. After all, women here are lucky – we are much better off than in other countries. Aren’t we?

The short answer is, only some of us. Devastating new data analysis from the Health Foundation has revealed – on the starkest measure – that for many women in England, that is far from being the case.

Life expectancy for women in the poorest parts of England is less than the overall life expectancy for women in every OECD country in the world besides Mexico. Let that sink in for a second. Lower than every other country in that club, bar one.

In 2017-19 female life expectancy in the most deprived local areas of England was 78.7 years. In the richest areas, it was 86.4 years. What does that say about the situation for England’s poorest women in 2022?

It tells us that women are the “shock absorbers of poverty”, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Women are more likely to be poor and have more debt than men.

Because of unpaid caring responsibilities often they can work fewer hours, and as a result have fewer savings and smaller pensions. For minoritised and disabled women, the picture is even bleaker. When the social safety net is slashed – as it has been, repeatedly, for more than a decade – it is women who fall first through the cracks.

“There’s really clear evidence that poverty is related to lower life expectancy,” says Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society.

“Over a decade of austerity and rising poverty levels have hit women hardest. They’re more likely to be working on the lowest incomes, to be lone parents or to retire with a lower pension.”

It is not poverty alone that has an impact on life expectancy – inequality in and of itself, is bad for people, she adds. “So high levels of inequality will be contributing to shorter lifespans for these women – that’s a really important part of this picture.”

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, agrees. “Women are paying a heavy price for a one size fits men approach to planning the economy,” she said. Reid, a woman not easily blind-sided by dismal gender inequality statistics, admits to being genuinely shocked at the new analysis.

“Political choices are being made that benefit those who have always benefited,” she says. “This data tells us very clearly that we are not using our abundant wealth to address inequality. There is no way we should be in that position. No way.”

The data snapshot was taken before the pandemic. A pandemic which resulted in twice as many (43%) young women from low-income households saying their financial situation had deteriorated, compared with 21% of higher-income young women and just 16% of higher-income men.

In their report on the unequal gendered economic impacts of the pandemic, the Commons women and equalities committee concluded “existing gendered inequalities in the economy have been ignored and sometimes exacerbated by the pandemic policy response”.

In December, the government pledged to “reset the dial” on women’s health in England, with its Vision for Women’s Health strategy, after 100,000 women came forward to share their healthcare concerns. With muttering that it was about bloody time that the rampant sexism in healthcare was recognised, that was welcomed.

But even the most dazzling of healthcare visions can achieve nothing without resources and long-term commitment. And even then, it will have little impact on this most stark of bottom lines if women’s longstanding and persistently unequal position in society is not addressed.

With the government refusing to carry out a review into the cost of childcare that keeps so many women out of work, no commitment to restoring the £20 universal credit uplift and the cost of living crisis biting hard there seems little sign of that.

“We’re moving into a cost of living crisis, which again, will hit women the hardest,” says Olchawski. “The potential impact of that is terrifying.”

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