The implications for gender equality are rarely discussed in the new productivity and levelling up agenda. It is key for productivity and levelling up policy agendas to address the underutilisation of women’s potential and the undervaluation of women’s work. In this blog, Professor Jill Rubery from the Work Equalities Institute investigates the underutilisation of women in the levelling up agenda and the economy as a whole.
- The underutilisation of women’s potential is evident in women’s lower employment rates.
- The Eurofund estimates the closing the gender employment gap would increase EU GDP by 2.8%.
- More women would be able to enter employment and/or work longer hours if the barriers to entry were eradicated. This entails better job prospects, fewer requirements for fulltime workers to work extended or unpredictable hours, if childcare was more flexible and affordable, and public transport more reliable and plentiful.
Raising productivity is now the key route to achieving the government’s announced goals of a high wage, high productivity economy and levelling up between and within regions. The implications for gender equality are, however, rarely discussed. A key issue is whether these productivity and levelling up policy agendas will address the underutilisation of women’s potential and the undervaluation of women’s work. So far there appears to be little interest in gender equality issues – the only mentions of gender in the Levelling Up White Paper is in relation to healthy life expectancy, where women tend to do better than men. There is scope for these agendas to contribute to gender equality as well as reduced spatial inequalities. Yet a simple focus on productivity will not necessarily deliver improved gender equality, nor will improvements in gender equality always increase measured productivity. Adopting a gender equality lens thus requires a reconsideration of how we measure and think about productivity.
The underutilisation of women’s potential is evident in women’s lower employment rates. Despite rising steadily, they still fall below the male average (71.8% compared to 78.2% October to December 2020). This employment gap of 6.3 percentage points is lower than the 10.4 percentage points gap a decade ago but OECD data on full-time equivalent employment rates shows a much larger gap of 23.5 percentage points (57.6 for women compared to 81.1 for men in 2019).
Although women make voluntary choices to work part-time, in practice these choices are constrained by employment practices, social norms and a lack of social infrastructure. More women would enter employment or work longer hours if there were better job prospects, fewer requirements for full-time workers to work extended or unpredictable hours, if childcare was more flexible and affordable, and public transport more reliable and plentiful.
Extending opportunities for jobs and for longer hours should boost national and local area growth. The Eurofound estimates that closing the gender employment gap would boost EU GDP by 2.8%, even if restricted to those women not in employment who currently want to work. However, the impact on measured productivity is more ambiguous. Productivity measured as output or value added for each hour of paid labour is argued to be the main route to higher living standards. Yet living standards can also be enhanced by raising employment rates and hours of work. Increasing women’s paid work hours could initially lower productivity, as it is the lower skilled whose employment rates are the most depressed and who are therefore likely to dominate new entrants and those extending hours. In the longer term, more continuous employment and longer guaranteed hours for part-timers should boost productivity by enabling better skill development. Paradoxically, in the short term productivity per hour could decline, as jobs organised on a flexible basis have allowed employers only to pay for those hours where demand is high, thereby raising productivity per hour through higher work intensity. However, this only benefits employers as workers may have to spend unpaid time waiting for or searching for work.
Focusing solely on maximising measured productivity per hour does not automatically improve living standards and security for women or for low-income households. Admittedly, increasing high productivity jobs in left-behind areas would have some indirect positive demand effect on services that would draw more women into employment. Yet, real progress in levelling up by both gender and local area requires more emphasis on ‘soft infrastructure’ investment such as childcare and more efforts to end insecure contracts than is present in current plans.
The underutilisation of women’s talents is also evident in relation to both skills and progression opportunities. Problems emerge at all levels in the labour market. For graduates in their first job, there is already a gender pay gap that is not accounted for by subject specialism or degree level. This gap widens over time, particularly if women switch to part-time working and are put on a ‘mommy’ career track without opportunities for training or promotion. Women are also overrepresented in the low-paid segment of employment where most part-time jobs are concentrated. This segment is characterised by low progression and development opportunities.
How skill underutilisation impacts measured productivity is variable. Failure to develop and utilise women’s talents must impoverish our economy and society. Some female-dominated sectors that provide limited pay progression opportunities – for example in social care – still rely on women developing and utilising skills gained through experience. Here productivity is enhanced through the unrecognised skills of the workforce, not from the firm’s super managerial skills.
Thus, what might appear to be women’s underutilisation in low skilled work may also involve the undervaluation of women’s work and skills. Productivity statistics make the bold and hard-to-substantiate assumption that women workers’ actual wages can be taken to be a measure of their relative labour quality. This assumption sits oddly with the widespread recognition that women are often unfairly paid. Part of the gender pay gap may arise from women’s work choices due to the unequal division of domestic work but without expectations of unfair pay practices there would be no gender pay gap reporting in the UK nor would the EU be proposing a pay transparency directive to reduce wage discrimination. Measuring the productivity of women’s work is particularly problematic in sectors where wages are a main indicator of productivity, as in public services like education, nursing or social care. Pay for public services staff, the majority of whom are women, is a matter of social choice. It is not lack of skill that keeps down nurses’ wages but government concerns over public finances. The outcome may not only be that skills are not recognised but also that the value of their work for society is underestimated, as the debate on the value of frontline workers during COVID-19 recognised.
Casting a gender lens on the productivity debate reveals that a simple focus on productivity will not meet the needs of women or those of poor households. This suggests three changes to be made in policy agendas to level up and raise productivity.
- While more high productivity jobs are needed particularly in left-behind areas, there is a need to recognise the important work undertaken by those in front line jobs, many of them women. These are often categorised as low productivity simply because they are low paid service work. Recognition of the value of this work requires investment in the people doing these jobs, not only to enable them to move to other sectors but also to improve the quality of jobs and progression opportunities within these sectors.
- The scope of infrastructure investment to level up and raise productivity needs widening to include care to ensure supply of sufficient and affordable childcare. A gender lens also requires that within standard investment areas such as local transport that bus transport – the most common mode for women – is given as much attention as road and rail. There are indicators of improvements in bus services in the Levelling Up White Paper under mission 3 but without any recognition of the importance of this transport mode for women.
- Finally, employers should make flexible working available from day one, rather than after six months employment under current regulations, to enable women to re-enter employment and also to change jobs to pursue their careers and develop and utilise their talents to the full.
This article was originally published in On Productivity, a collection of thought leadership pieces and expert analysis addressing the gaps in economic performance across the UK, published by Policy@Manchester.
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