#BeBoldForChange and the changing world of work: International Women’s day 2017

As women across the world mark the 106th International Women’s Day (IWD17) they are being encouraged to think about their place in the “changing world of work.” Perhaps by coincidence, only a few days earlier toy giant Lego announced plans for it’s latest toy set based on “real life female scientists, engineers and astronauts”. The design was the winner of the latest “Lego ideas” competition and will feature prominent female scientists including Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and space scientist who worked with NASA and was recently featured in the Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures.

Despite attempts to raise the profiles of successful and prominent women in employment, research consistently highlights the persistence of the gender pay gap, albeit more prominent in some professions than others. The “motherhood penalty” still stagnates, or even cripples the careers of many women, and women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Figures show that globally, women’s education, health and violence towards women is still worse than that of men, and that these factors affect their ability to participate fully in employment.

The scale of gender inequalities

A report published by the charity Engender ahead of IWD17 found that of the 3029 top leadership positions across business, politics, public sector, media, culture and sport in Scotland, only 27% of positions are held by women. The report found that, although women make up 52% of the population, they represent only:

  • 35% of Members of the Scottish Parliament
  • 7% of senior police officers
  • 20% of museum and gallery directors
  • 25% of local councillors
  • 16% of local authority leaders
  • 28% of public body chief executives
  • 26% of university principals

Previous research by Engender also found that women still do the majority of “invisible” work including housework, raising children and caring for vulnerable relatives. According to the 2011 census data, 62% of unpaid carers are women and the UK household satellite accounts found that the value of informal childcare in 2010 was £343 billion – equivalent to 23% of GDP. A report published by the Fawcett Society highlighted that inequalities also exists between women. The report found that the gender pay gap was even more exaggerated in black and ethnic minority (BAME) women than in other groups.

Women in Employment

The most recent employment figures for the UK showed that unemployment stood at 4.8%, the lowest level since 2005, and the proportion of women in work reached a record high of 70%. The latest PwC Women in Work Index measures levels of female economic empowerment across 33 OECD countries, based on five indicators. It reported that the UK had rapidly improved since 2000. However it also said that at the current rate of progress it will still take until 2041 to close the gender pay gap in the UK.

In short the picture is improving, but what exactly is being done to help women enter and remain in employment?

Supporting women into work

Supporting women into work was highlighted as a key policy objective for both the coalition and Conservative governments. A number of strategies have been considered to help different groups of women into employment:

  • Supporting women from disadvantaged backgrounds into employment – this includes women who have little to no formal education, victims of domestic violence, disabled women, and female offenders.
  • Supporting young women into traditionally “non female” roles – this includes encouraging young women and girls to take subjects at school and continue these onto university. It also means making apprenticeships open and inclusive, and marketable to everyone.
  • Supporting women to start up their own businesses – recent research highlighted that the annual revenue of women-led companies in the UK is growing at 28 per cent with an average turnover of £3.7 million. Potential support includes making women aware of specific funding they are entitled to, and helping them with the initial start up process. We’ve blogged before about female entrepreneurs if you want to know more.
  • Incentives and increased flexibility for women with children – For many women, the cost of childcare for young children means that working does not make financial sense for them. Employers have been taking steps to make working hours and conditions more flexible, some even providing crèche facilities or credits for childcare to staff to ease the pressure of childcare on working families. Changes to maternity and paternity leave also allow fathers to take a greater caring responsibility for new babies, and can help make the transition back to work easier for some families.
  • Supporting older women – this group has been identified as having been somewhat neglected by back-to- or entry-to-work schemes. Age related conditions, increasing caring responsibilities for elderly parents or grandchildren, and decisions to retrain or change careers can all impact significantly on the professional careers of older women.
  • Supporting women to progress – Women typically still make up the majority of the low-skilled, low pay work force, with many working part time in order to meet childcare needs. However, research has shown that this impacts significant on their ability to progress. While progression is an issue across the board for women in employment, it is particularly noticeable for this group. Research from NPI showed that there were around 5.1 million low paid employees in 2015. 62%, or 3.2 million of them were women and options for progression were significantly lower than for men, which keeps many women in a cycle of low-skilled, low paid, often insecure work.

Supporting women back to work

Many women take career breaks during their professional lives, most commonly to start or look after family. However, when they decide to return they face a number of barriers. These barriers mean that many returners end up in lower skilled jobs, either because their old job does not accommodate new flexible working needs or because extended time away from work is associated with a loss of skill. The UK government have launched a number of strategies and consultations aimed at encouraging and supporting women back to work after a career break. Individual organisations have also developed their own schemes, including the Back to Business scheme developed by PwC and Relaunch your career from MasterCard.

Many schemes include coaching and mentoring, phased returns to work, flexible working options and job shares, where appropriate. Increasingly, organisations now offer childcare options. Employers are also now allowing more staff to work from home, with the increased use of videoconferencing and online document sharing.

Earlier this week, Vodafone announced that it is launching the one of the world’s largest supported return to work programmes, ReConnect to recruit women who have taken a career break, as well as committing to increasing the proportion of women in management and leadership roles.

Final thoughts

Fully unlocking women’s economic empowerment – one of the cornerstones of true gender equality – is reliant upon unlocking the full potential of women in the workplace. As people across the world celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women, as well as a growing awareness of their collective power to agitate for change, International Women’s Day also provides the opportunity to reflect on the position of women within society, and the steps that can be taken to improve this in the future.

#BeBoldForChange is the official hashtag for this years #IWD17 celebrations. You can submit your #BeBoldForChange action via the IWD website.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on women in employment and women in technology.

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