Taking care of business

We all know the economy needs ‘levelling up’ after the impacts of, not just the past few years but a decade of austerity and years of deindustrialisation. What if the answer is empowering women? asks Eve Halliday.

Published:

29.05.2022

Writer:

Eve Halliday

Just over 50 years, on the 29 May 1970, the UK took a historic step towards gender equality by passing the Equal Pay Act. For the first time, employers couldn’t pay women less than men who were doing the same job. This act, brought in thanks to demonstrations by the National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal Rights, is a cornerstone of equality in the workplace.

But today, we still see a global gender pay gap. Here in the UK, research presented to the House of Commons found that, in April 2020, the national median weekly pay for employed women was £543, compared to £619 for men; that the employment rate for women was 9% lower and that women were less likely to run their own business.

Why is this still happening?

Ironically, the explanation can be found amongst the events that saw the Equal Pay Act introduced. In 1968, women working in Dagenham’s Ford car factory saw their jobs as sewing machinists labelled as ‘unskilled’, while men doing a very similar job in the factory had their work labelled as ‘skilled’, resulting in higher pay for the men – very shocking, I’m sure… The women didn’t take this lying down, and the strike that followed was a major trigger for the passing of the act. But the act didn’t really address the root of the problem of the women’s work being valued less, even though it was skilled work. And women still face this problem today.

In this day and age, we’re all aware that there’s no such thing as ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work’, but it’s undeniable that men and women are employed at drastically different rates across different sectors. In an examination of 121 countries, the International Labour Organisation found that, while men make up the most employees in construction, trades, and manufacturing, women outnumber men massively in healthcare, social care – such as in care homes and childcare – and education. All of these sectors require skills, but the disparities in employee compensation and amounts of public investment received show that some of these sectors are valued more highly than the others; there are no prizes for guessing whether those are the sectors that mostly employ men or women.

While the economy needs all the help it can get, it’s time to look at the gaps the Equal Pay Act doesn’t address, and start to value things differently. Thankfully, the work’s already begun.

“In 2017, a Combined Authority (CA) was formed in the Liverpool City Region as part of the English devolution agenda from the Conservative government. As women who lived and worked in the region, we were really upset to see that it was all men. Men that certainly did not represent us or speak on our behalf,” says Dr. Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs, co-founder of One Day, programme leader at John Moores Business School and chair of Baltic Creative CIC. “In 2019, the CA was working on its regional industrial strategy, that looked very similar to what had gone before – and very little had to do with women. We are 51% of the region’s population, so decided to write our own industrial strategy, gathering together over 20 women and, in one day, wrote our own industrial strategy. We presented it to the CA on International Women’s Day 2020, days before the coronavirus pandemic closed down the world.”

“If we don’t invest in women-led businesses and women-led innovations, we’re missing huge potential. Great ideas or innovation doesn’t come from just one end of the gender spectrum.”

Two years – and one pandemic – later, One Day has written its third report. While there are now two women in the CA, with Cllr Janette Williamson, Leader of Wirral Borough Council becoming Deputy Mayor in 2020 and Mayor of Liverpool Joanne Anderson joining in 2021, there’s still lots of work to be done. For Fiona, the other women involved in One Day, and women everywhere, work like One Day is vital in introducing change and seeing investment and opportunities in women. And this change won’t just benefit women, it’ll benefit everyone.

“If we don’t invest in women-led businesses and women-led innovations, we’re missing huge potential. Great ideas or innovation doesn’t come from just one end of the gender spectrum,” says Thandi Dyani, a consultant who helps startups, companies, foundations, and governments with social transaction, equity and diversity work and building new ecosystems and networks for change. “By leaving women unfounded and unsupported, we might miss the solution that we’re all waiting for. Other than that, it’s the right thing to do. Women make up half of the world’s population – why shouldn’t they be supported on the same level as a man?”

The value of ‘women’s work’ can be seen most obviously in the care sector. When the world shut down, manufacturing stopped and board rooms closed, who had to keep going? Our hospitals and our care homes; the healthcare institutions that are staffed mostly by women. When the schools had to shut, what did we have to do? Homeschool our children to ensure they weren’t missing out on their education, getting them logged on and learning online. We had to keep educating to our youth, showing the importance of education, another sector dominated by women.

The way business and investment has been done in the past, as evidenced by the CA’s industrial strategy (and the entire societal patriarchy as a whole), needs to change. And this is what One Day is working towards.

“On the one hand it’s institutionalised. Institutions don’t like change and taking risks. Without research and evidence and a business case for change, policies and rules don’t change. But another view is about protectionism. When the power and decision making is protected and kept in the same circles, it goes to the same people,” says Fiona. “We’ve got to be activists, we’ve got to challenge. Through One Day, we’re giving the CA and working with them, to provide this evidence, this business case for change. You’ve got to do both to create change.”

Care, both paid and unpaid, is undertaken mostly by women, yet it’s systematically and institutionally undervalued – probably because it isn’t marketable like fancy high-rises and flashy cars. It’s not a manufactured product that people will buy at a marked-up price. This results in our care workers being underpaid and undervalued, while they work long hours in hazardous environments, looking after our vulnerable loved ones in a job that requires skill, competence and resilience.

Care is vital to our societies. Women are normally expected to care for children or relatives, too, doing unpaid care that isn’t valued by society at large as the time-consuming, strenuous, and vital job that it is. When the world shut down, the ‘women’s jobs’ of care had to keep going, because it’s something we can’t do without.

“We still measure economic growth in terms of ‘market’ value (GDP) – manufacturing, selling, and building things. The financial value of these is the main concern of governments and leads into where they choose to invest,” says Fiona. “We’ve reduced social care, childcare, and education to services – and measure interactions as financial transactions, but they don’t count or measure well in a market. We are destroying the impact and necessity of these to create good lives for us all. We are ripping the heart of our core human interactions and ignoring the powerful foundations that good care should give us all. Care is not a thing for sale, it’s a core infrastructure.”

Valuing this work more highly isn’t just better for those who work do these jobs, it’s better for our economy as a whole. One Day’s report references work by Professor of Economics Stephanie Seguino, who found that “countries that constrain investments in social reproduction (i.e. childcare) may pay a cost due to lower labour productivity growth.”

One Day also quotes a report by the Women’s Budget Group which found that “an investment in care would create 2.7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction”. It would, it found, enhance job opportunities outside of the care sector, as more care means more supplies and those supply chains would need more staff to keep up. It also found that an investment in care would be better for the planet, too, with care producing 30% less greenhouse gas emissions than construction…

Remind me why we keep investing in construction over care again?

The devaluing of women’s work isn’t only seen in the preferential treatment of male dominated sectors. Women who own businesses or are self-employed were impacted disproportionately by the pandemic, too.

“Less women accessed funds that they were entitled to from the Self Employment Income Support Scheme than men. And when they did access the funds, they tended to get less than men,” says Fiona. “More women were affected financially by the pandemic, and we’ve yet to understand the impact on women’s earning potential. This was probably due to the fact that the work self-employed women do tends to be lower-paid.”

As Thandi and Fiona have outlined, and supported by evidence in One Day’s report, we’re missing opportunities by not investing in and valuing women-led businesses and sectors, both for innovation and for economic growth.

“In the same way that educating women empowers a greater community, so does investing in women. There’s an old African proverb – ‘if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family’. When you empower women, the cumulative effect is that more people will benefit, knowledge and wealth is shared, and that’s creating change for all. With women in leadership, decision-making positions, and businesses where financial decision-making happens, we’ll all be better off, but it’s a brave change that’s needed,” says Fiona.

One Day’s report provides just the evidence Fiona says is needed to support this and encourage businesses and authorities to invest in women: ‘extensive evidence from the Women’s Budget Group, the World Economic Forum Report and studies by KPMG, Catalyst, Deloitte, and Goldman Sachs, to name a few, all tell us that 60+% of UK new growth can be attributed to women – and that is nearer 80% when the gender balance is supported through policy or law,’ the report notes. ‘Deloitte projects that a £100bn boost to the UK economy can be achieved just by ‘narrowing’ the gender pay gap over the next ten years.’

This rings true for Thandi, too. “As with any diversity aspect, everyone brings something valuable to the table – if they are able, if they dare , if they have the access to do so. Women are no exception. But having the right work and business culture to do so, is the major challenge. But women do bring something special to the table. They bring themselves and their lived experience, which is needed to attract women clients and consumers. Women are fantastic leaders. They are able to build fantastic relationships and build inclusive cultures, but they need the space to do that. Until we have this perfect world, many women exist in a patriarchy that dictates the terms in which we can lead.”

With women like Thandi empowering other women to lead and innovate and Fiona and the One Day women fighting for women’s representation and opportunities, we’re on our way. We’re already seeing women becoming empowered to lead and innovate in their own way, and we’re seeing the world recognise how important the work that women do, both paid and unpaid, for our communities.

“When a woman is empowered to thrive and have equitable measures to work and lead, they ALWAYS give back to their community,” says Thandi. “That’s just the beauty of women!”

Just when we could really use that £100bn Deloitte projects we could achieve by empowering women, isn’t now the perfect time to make the change? Now, we need to empower women, give them opportunities to lead in their own way, and get more jobs for the girls.

 

You can read the One Day report here.

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