Women across the UK faced “unprecedented” challenges in 2021 with hard-won victories in the battle for gender parity put at risk of reversal.

That’s the stark assessment from Maggie O’Carroll, chief executive of The Women’s Organisation, who says the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening economic conditions and growing risk of violence have all combined to create a turbulent year for women everywhere.

Headquartered in Liverpool, The Women’s Organisation is the UK’s largest female economic development agency. It provides a range of services focused on supporting women to start and develop small and medium-sized enterprises.

And as weary women everywhere wonder what 2022 might have in store, Maggie takes stock of a year that pushed women’s issues to the brink but may also have begun to bring about much-needed wholesale change.

She said: “It is with a heavy heart that I concede that 2021 was quite possibly unprecedented in so far as reversing progress on gender parity across the world. The pandemic has been hugely and adversely impactful on women’s wellbeing, mental health, financial security and personal safety.

“2021 presented a tsunami of issues for women, both old and new. Let’s look at the facts.

“After decades of at times slow, but steady progress, 2021 reintroduced pre-existing gender inequalities as women bore the brunt of home-schooling, unpaid care and additional domestic duties. Countless women have lost their jobs through redundancy or having to sacrifice work due to growing pressures in the home.

“Even during the last quarter, women, including those mothers and homemakers, were hit hardest by soaring energy costs, the end of the furlough scheme and cuts to the Universal Credit uplift.

“Those sectors in which women are typically overrepresented, such as travel, hospitality and the arts, have been most affected by restrictions imposed by the pandemic and are likely to take the longest to recover, leaving many in limbo in the months ahead.

“And even the SEISS scheme, which was introduced to protect the swathes of self-employed who had fallen through the cracks, took an unfair toll on women who had reported losses in average earnings due to maternity leave.

“Women suffered the loss of social interactions, battled bereavement and came to terms with loneliness. We’ve been beleaguered and burnt out, so much so that the mental health of young women is widely reported to have become a serious health issue.

“But it’s not just our mental health that’s taken a hammering. Our personal safety was put in very real jeopardy too.

“The serious and growing issue of violence against women and girls, now referred to as the shadow pandemic, has been brought starkly to the fore in recent months through the killings of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nesser.

“Their stories have shone a cold light on a culture of entrenched misogyny, wilful ignorance and systemic failure to protect; and instilled a shared sense of neglect, mistrust and moral disorientation among women in our society. The pandemic turned women’s plight for parity into a fight for our lives.

“But, in adversity lies opportunity. Women have reassembled and rallied, we’ve petitioned and we’ve protested. We’ve grown tired of asking and we’ve started to demand change.

“And it is because of this, this strength of spirit and sisterhood, that we have seen the safety of women and girls become not only part of the conversation, but a key part of both the local and national Government’s strategy and investment portfolio.

“In joining together, women have not only brought about long overdue changes to policy, but it’s put the wheels in motion for direct and mandatory action. Women have shown grit, guts and gallant obstinacy. They have not taken this year lying down. They have not accepted ill fate.

“At The Women’s Organisation, we saw enquiries for business and other support services almost treble during the lockdown period with more than 3,000 accessing training programmes, from management to trading online – a reassuring reminder of women’s resilience.

“And I can’t not pay tribute to all our staff and community delivery partners, who too have triumphed over adversity, delivering 500 courses and events throughout the pandemic. They, like so many others, adapted and innovated so that together we could continue to deliver training, advice and support to women, perhaps when they needed it most.

“Our international team has gone from strength to strength. Our colleague in China, Jing Zhang, beat off fierce competition to participate in a pioneering project that aims to explore the challenges associated with women’s entrepreneurship in the US – the findings for which will be crucial to wider policy development.

“It goes without saying that there are lessons to be learnt from the social enterprise sector, particularly as we ‘Build Back Better’ – after all those businesses are built on a philosophy of demonstrating social and environmental value.

“It is notable that despite huge economic and social challenges and difficult trading environments, social enterprises have continued to demonstrate impact, not just financially, but environmentally and socially.

“Our future prosperity depends on being smarter and more inclusive. In a fast-changing world ‘business as usual’ will leave us floundering and left behind. Women make up more than half of the UK population. Utilising the knowledge and ingenuity of women and of all sections of our community is the key to our continued growth.”