When I joined the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) this January, I was excited about the work I was asked to lead on shaping a competition for the UK Futures Programme on tackling gender inequality. I had worked for a number of years on the issue of inequality in our economy (the extent and impact of differences in incomes and wealth). Now I was learning about the way that economic inequality has a sharp gender dimension, with women in large part at the wrong end of the distribution of pay and opportunity.
I quickly discovered the bewildering array of issues under the heading of gender inequality. Like the fact that women struggle to make in-roads into male dominated occupations in IT and construction; too few women make it to managerial and leadership positions; too many women get stuck in low paid, poorly valued part time jobs because they need to combine work and family responsibilities. How were we going to decide which bit of this broad and complex problem to focus on? With relatively modest resources of £1 million to invest across multiple projects we needed to target carefully.
Colleagues and I set about reading the literature and research that already exists, and speaking to lots of experts – employers, policy makers, campaigners, economists and social researchers. What emerged was a view that, while all the issues affecting women at work are important and essential to address, one issue had received somewhat less attention from policy makers and practitioners, including employers. This was the matter of low pay, opportunity and status for women in industries which are typically ‘feminised’, including adult social care, cleaning and commercial catering.
These industries account for the employment of a lot of women; social care, for example, employs 1.45 million people with four-fifths of these being women. The scale of female employment in these areas, together with the poor pay they receive, goes some way to explain the size of the average gender pay gap in the UK as a whole: on latest figures women still earn 19 per cent less than male counterparts. It also offers part of the explanation for how it is that women make up two-thirds of the low paid workforce in the UK. That is equivalent to more than 3 million women in these and other industries whose work is systematically undervalued: we cannot do without them, but they struggle to live on what they earn.
There is another reason that makes this issue stand out. We know that adult social care and other personal services are areas of the economy that are expected to grow and employ more people. In fact, there’s a predicted increase of over half a million jobs in personal care services by 2022. The quality as well as the quantity of employment matters to the health of the economy. That means we need to make these good jobs by recognising and using people’s skills to best effect, attracting and retaining committed people to do them, and valuing the work they do in financial and non-financial ways, including liveable pay.
While I am convinced we are right to take the focus that we have, we have chosen one of the most challenging aspects of gender inequality in the world of work. Raising wages for lower paid workers, mainly women, in the sectors we have chosen – cleaning, commercial catering and adult social care – is not easy when these are such price-competitive markets and many providers are small in size. But we are taking a broader focus than this. We want to support projects that raise pay (if they can) while recognising that may be a longer term goal for some organisations. There is much that can be done right now, though, to value these workers better by using non-financial as well as financial means. We are interested in how the jobs that women in these industries do can be made more secure, how these jobs can be enriched, how workers’ voices can be heard and how their imagination and energy can be used better to improve the quality of their organisations’ offer to clients.
The evidence is there that changing the design of jobs can contribute to improved wellbeing at work, with impacts on productivity and organisational success. Employers in these industries who set out to improve job design for their lower-paid women workers have told us that they have seen lower turnover of their staff resulting in reduced costs, and higher staff satisfaction with impacts on motivation. These businesses have been able to offer a more secure, high quality offer to their clients with knock-on reputational gains.
The UK Futures Programme is all about innovation and testing new ideas, to see what works in tackling some our biggest workforce development issues and assessing the potential impact for businesses and the wider economy. And true to that we have set a challenging brief in this competition. I’m excited to have helped scope that brief, but I am more excited at the prospect of working with progressive employers on the solutions to this challenge. The learning we will get will be invaluable in helping to demonstrate that improving work for lower paid women is possible and desirable from a business as well as an individual point of view.
Find more information on the UK Futures Programme.
The competition brief for "Workplace solutions to the gender pay and opportunity gap", can be found here along with instructions on how to apply.