Why women lose out in the workforce

By Ann McGauran | 11 June 2021

While the gender pay and workforce participation gaps in men’s favour are not new narratives, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the disparities. According to a new working paper from the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), the crisis has shone a light on the long-term barriers holding women back from achieving equality in the labour market.

The briefing is part of a new programme of work from the CPP that will identify those obstacles and the challenges facing women in the workplace. It explores the most recent data from the quarterly Labour Force Survey on women’s participation in the labour market. The key findings are:

  • For women with children:

 -  Just one in five women with three or more children are in full-time employment

 - 83.4% of men with two children were in full-time employment, compared to 34% of women with two children.

  • Older women: Just 37.8% of women aged 50 to 65 were in full-time employment by comparison to 63% of men.
  • 41.9% of non-White women are in full-time employment, compared to 45.6% of White British women, 63.6% of non-White men and 70.2% of White British men.
  • Women with lower qualifications: 30.4% of women whose highest qualification was a GCSE or lower were in full-time employment, compared to 58.5% of men at the same qualification level.

These findings show women have less choice and fewer chances for career progression than men, says the paper - and addressing this inequality would contribute significantly to the UK’s inclusive economic recovery and to the levelling up agenda. Crucially, it says ‘halving the gap in the full-time employment rate would mean a further 2.5m women in full-time work, which would have significant implications for output and incomes across the UK’.

Ben Franklin is head of research at CPP. What stands out most starkly from the data, in his view? ‘What surprised me was the huge disparity in full-time employment when we look at different groups. It comes across obviously for women with children, and the huge gulf as the number of children increases.’

Personal choice is not driving differences of this size, he believes.  ‘A natural response might be for some people to say “well women have chosen to stay at home, and look after their kids while their partner goes to work”. But I don’t think you can justify the massive gaps on the scale that we’ve found by choice alone.’

Alongside the briefing, the CPP has published a second paper by Norma Cohen focusing on childcare during the pandemic. It says ‘the entire childcare system which supports people at work has been shaken to its foundations’. Without reform this risks creating a legacy of increased economic inactivity amongst women, she concludes.

When it comes to rates of economic inactivity, Mr Franklin highlights that ‘around 30% of that for women is driven by caring for others – generally it’s childcare or providing care for an older relative – it’s only about 6% for men’.

Women were already off to a very unequal start before the pandemic because of childcare needs, said Franklin. If we are not careful ‘we could turn the clock back in terms of participation for women in the workforce over the next five years, when actually women should be a really strong part of the build back better story as we try to come out of this [crisis]’.

But isn’t the potential for local government to influence this agenda not only limited, but becoming more so? The grandfather of ‘levelling up’ himself Lord Heseltine said earlier this year that all momentum has dissipated from the task of devolution to identifiable economies. ‘I think that’s a real problem.’

He continues: ‘We’ve done a lot of work at the CPP about the lack of funding for local government. They don’t have many levers to transfer funds into childcare because they don’t have the powers around that or they don’t have enough resources to direct other services which are Cinderella services as it is anyway.’

Combined authorities can take a more strategic view, he says, ‘because they are more of a functional economic area and they do have increased powers and levers to affect some of these things’.

Two largish reports with new data analyses are planned for the coming months, that he hopes will include more geographic breakdowns -  looking at the gender participation and pay gaps by local authority. ‘We’re going to be looking at the macroeconomic benefits from closing the [employment] participation gaps. If we get these 2.5m extra people working full-time what might that mean for economic output and try to do that in a credible way.’ The second report will have significant costed proposals.

He worries that due to ‘the death of local industrial strategies and a national industrial strategy’, many of these issues will be looked at piecemeal. Ultimately what’s needed, he believes, is a cohesive industrial strategy at a local level that combines ‘the thoughts about the industries you should invest in which are going to provide high value-added good jobs’. But it should also include ‘all the things about public services and softer infrastructure services such as childcare and adult social care, which is so important for labour force participation amongst people of different ages and different genders.’

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