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Fair work agenda has caused 'diminished focus' on the gender pay gap

Credit: Alamy

Fair work agenda has caused 'diminished focus' on the gender pay gap

Helen, a specialist nurse, is thinking about leaving the NHS. Even though she loves what she does, she’s looking for a job in retail for the sake of her family. As a single mum of three, she has struggled to balance the demands of the job with the needs of her children. And when she asked for some flexibility from her employer, she was turned down.

“I was told if they allowed me to work flexibly they’d have to do the same for others. But others aren’t in my situation. I'm a survivor of domestic violence and have no family support. The process was awful and I was made to feel like a massive inconvenience,” Helen says.

The only solution left open to her was to go down a pay band, “which put me and my family in financial difficulty”. “Now I don’t want to be a nurse any more.”

Helen is far from the only woman to face such issues. A recent Unison survey of public sector workers in Scotland found three in ten had had their request to work flexibly denied. Employees have a legal right to submit such a request, but any employer can turn it down with the rather broad-brush excuse of a “good business reason”.

Part-time work does tend to be undervalued within organisations and part-time workers are often seen as being less committed to their job

The trade union argues this isn’t good enough. Unison Scotland’s women’s chair Davena Rankin said: “Sadly many women who find they need to inject some flexibility into their working lives are coming up against employers with inconsistent, rigid and unimaginative attitudes.

“While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, some form of flexible working is achievable in most workplaces… Too many employers are still turning down flexible working requests, which means the right to request is pretty meaningless for many women.”

Anna Ritchie Allan, director of Close the Gap, agrees. She says in many organisations, not just the public sector, there is a “cultural presumption against” types of working beyond the standard 9-5 full time job. This, she explains, is “one of the main causes of the segregation” in the labour market and why women tend to dominate those professions which are more likely to allow flexible and part-timing working, such as early learning and childcare. “If those are the only opportunities that are available for you, if you need to work part-time for whatever reason, then it constrains choices about the type of job that you have,” she adds.

This continues to be a leading cause of the gender pay gap. While the gap between the pay of men and women in full-time positions in Scotland has narrowed to 1.7 per cent, the overall gender pay gap is 8.7 percent. That’s because the majority of part-time workers in Scotland are women, and not only do part-time jobs mean fewer hours, they also tend to be jobs that pay less per hour.

Ritchie Allan explains: “Part-time work does tend to still be clustered in the lower grades of an organisation, so it is harder to get at part-time job that’s quite highly paid. What we need to see is better quality part-time work and more flexible working.

“Thinking about women's financial insecurity, it’s quite common to see women juggling multiple low-paid jobs that are part-time hours. That’s not at all an ideal situation. It contributes to women's higher levels of poverty and in-work poverty, as does the increasing precarity of women's employment.

“But the fact remains that part-time work does tend to be undervalued within organisations and part-time workers are often seen as being less committed to their job, less committed to their career, and so on. Some opportunities for development and progression tend to be closed off to part-time workers.

“What there needs to be is a step change in attitude about part-time work, but also there needs to be more of an acceptance that it is possible to work in a flexible – including in a part-time – way in lots of different roles in an organisation, not just those that are the lower paid ones.”

The best childcare system in the world would not fix a broken labour market

Childcare naturally has an important role in promoting women’s financial equality. The latest ONS figures put the economic inactivity rate (those not working nor seeking a job) at 25.3 per cent for women, compared to 18.4 per cent for men. A quarter of those women cite “looking after family/home” as the reason. Meanwhile, a survey by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found 65 per cent of parents in Scotland had reduce their hours or left the workforce entirely due to childcare challenges. Given women remain on whole the primary caregiver in families, it is safe to assume such decisions will have had more of an impact on women.

The Scottish Government, for its part, has put substantial resource into expanding its early learning and childcare (ELC) offer. All three and four-year-olds are eligible for 1,140 hours of free care per year, with some two-year-olds also eligible. An Audit Scotland report last summer praised the progress on this initiative, stating: “The Scottish Government and councils did well to put in place 1,140 hours of funded ELC by August 2021, during the Covid‑19 pandemic. Councils completed most of the infrastructure projects and had significantly expanded the workforce.”

However, the auditors also warned that “the sector is fragile, which could affect flexibility and choice for families if funding and workforce risks are not addressed”. They called for the development of “long-term workforce plans” to address sustainability and demand.

Further, the 1,140 hours is the equivalent of 30 hours per week during term time – not enough for those wishing to work full time. Close the Gap is campaigning for that to increase to 50 hours, as well as for more flexibility. A survey by the Scottish Women’s Budget Group found that 16 per cent of women had been unable to access childcare their children were eligible for due to a lack of flexibility, for example around evening shifts.

It also leaves a gap in provision for the youngest children and those of school-age (the government has commitments on expanding in these areas, though no fixed targets or timelines). With average childcare costs totalling approximately £1,079 a month, it means many families are priced out – and it often falls to women to pick up the slack.

Jack Evans, a senior policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), explains that there are many benefits of a universal childcare offer – for example increasing family wellbeing or reducing the attainment gap – but what it also means is that ELC is “not prioritised as a poverty-reducing measure”.

He says: “It’s not targeted at children or parents in poverty, meaning that parents who can afford to pay for childcare will be doing that when their child is one and two, when there’s very little support. Parents in lower income households are unlikely to have their children in childcare until that offer kicks in at age three. That means a greater delay, especially for women, in re-entering the labour market after having a child.”

But he’s also clear that even a substantial increase in the ELC offer is no silver bullet. “The best childcare system in the world would not fix a broken labour market, and that’s essentially what we have. We have a devaluation of industries that are predominantly worked in by women – care is a really good example. We also undervalue part-time work and flexible work.”

The latest iteration of the JRF’s annual Poverty in Scotland report focused on in-work poverty, an issue that disproportionately effects women, disabled people and minority ethnic people. The report encourages businesses to “have a serious look at how their employment practices and policies are affecting women”.

The National Strategy for Economic Transformation doesn’t quite live up to its name in terms of transforming women’s economic inequality

Evans says the government needs to “start speaking to private business much more than it does at the moment” if it is serious about reducing poverty in Scotland. “We need employers to start shouldering more of the responsibility,” he adds, though he emphasises this needs to be done on a “collaborative” basis because of “understandable concern from the business community that they’re going to have even further costs and pressures”.

The JRF report refers to the need for government to “operationalise fair work”. Evans explains what that means: “Fair work needs to come off the page in the Scottish Government and into the business community. That requires significant effort and funding to go out and speak to businesses.” He holds the Living Wage Scotland programme – for whom he used to work – up as an example, where dedicated teams go meet with businesses and have “difficult conversations” but which often resulted in businesses “doing the right thing”.

And where conversations aren’t enough, there are some levers the Scottish Government could pull – despite employment law being reserved – to implement the fair work agenda. Procurement is one example often spoken about in parliament, but Evans also points to business rates relief as another. “Those discounts could be tied to criteria. They could be tied to the criteria of no exploitative contracts, they could be tied to paying the real living wage, they could be tied to being a living hours employer.”

“A great deal of work needs to be done to persuade employers in Scotland that this is possible. Lots of good work is happening on that, but we're moving too slowly for that to start impacting on the 2030 [poverty] targets,” he adds.

The reason so much discussion on women’s financial inequality focuses on work is due to difficulties in breaking down poverty data by gender. The Scottish Government measures poverty on a household level, meaning there is little information on women’s poverty specifically. However, the statistics do show more than a third (36 per cent) of single mothers live in poverty. They also show female pensioners are more likely to be in poverty than their male counterparts (23 per cent compared to 18 per cent). This is due to a gender wealth gap, a consequence of the gender pay gap which means men are able to put more money aside for retirement over the course of their career.

However, research has also shown than the Scottish Government’s focus on reducing child poverty has had a positive knock-on impact for women. The introduction of the Scottish Child Payment is a major boon. Evans says: “Like a lot of social security payments, it’s paid to one person within a household and we know that 85 per cent of those in receipt are women. When we did our cost of living survey in spring 2023 we found that two-thirds of women in receipt off the Scottish Child Payment said it had improved their financial security.”

This is an example of why having a strong social security system is imperative for women. “Women’s poverty and women’s financial security is much more closely tied to the social security system than men’s poverty and men’s financial security is,” Evans says.

“This can be good if you have a progressive social security plan where it increases in line with the increases to the cost of living. But as we've seen too often, social security can be a bit of a political football where the reality of the rate [of benefits] doesn't match the reality of what people are experiencing. If governments try to claw back spending on social security, that will most likely first hit women’s financial security and hit their financial security hardest.”

For Ritchie Allan, it’s clear that there needs to be a whole-economy response to women’s financial inequality and related poverty – and she is extremely concerned that that is not being realised in the Scottish Government’s economic strategy.

The gender pay gap action plan, published in 2019, was “a seminal bit of work, a real step forward,” she says. But since then it has been subsumed into the wider fair work agenda. “What you need is a much more sophisticated analysis and a wider range of actions, but because that very broad and detailed [gender pay gap] action plan was subsumed into this much narrower [fair work] action plan, what it’s resulted in – and it’s unintentional – is a much diminished focus on the gender pay gap and the causes of women's inequality at work.”

This is despite a move to the so-called wellbeing economy which is meant to put equality at its heart. “We’ve been quite critical of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation which doesn’t quite live up to its name in terms of transforming women’s economic inequality,” Ritchie Allan says.

Dubbing that strategy a “really weak, gender-blind piece of work,” she adds: “The sectors within the economic strategy that have been targeted for policy focus and investment, those continue to be the sectors which are male-dominated.

“Although we know that social care, for example, is a growing sector, we don't see any attention on that within the wider economic policy. This is also seen within the green jobs agenda as well. We need to start questioning what the definition of green jobs are. Care work, for example, is not identified as being a green job even though it’s a low-carbon job.”

Still, there are some bright spots for women’s equality in the economy. There has broadly been a narrowing of the gender pay gap in the last decade, and Scotland continues to outperform other nations of the UK in that regard. Part of that is due to the public sector pay deals agreed by government – women make up about 60 per cent of that workforce and therefore have benefited more from those uplifts. And Scotland was last month ranked first in PwC’s Women in Work Index, driven by an increase in the number of women in the labour market.

But the job is not yet done. Ritchie Allan calls for “much more of a focus” on the wider range of drivers behind women’s inequality. “Action needs to happen within early years settings to challenge gender norms and stereotypes. We need action to prevent violence against women. And we also need employability programmes and skills programmes that actively challenge occupational segregation.”

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