Low pay for women is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality

With higher pay more men might be encouraged to consider working in social care or childcare and that would be a significant step forward


In the run up to the General Election, every few weeks Left Foot Forward will take a look back at the coalition’s record on a specific policy area. This week we focus on low pay, and each day we will feature a piece that looks back at the impact of coalition policies on in-work poverty over the past five years. The following is from Sally Brett, senior policy officer at the TUC

The majority of low paid workers are women. Three in five National Minimum Wage jobs are held by women, two in five by men. Over a quarter of women (27 per cent) earn less than the Living Wage; fewer than one in six men do (16 per cent).

For women working part time, which two-fifths of women do, the incidence of low pay is even higher – two in five earn less than the Living Wage and in some parts of the country most part-time women do not earn enough to give them a decent standard of living.

Certain characteristics that are commonly associated with women such as being a part-time worker (three-quarters are women) or being a lone parent (92 per cent are women) have been found to greatly increase the likelihood of being stuck on low pay for more than a decade.

Yet the most often talked about headline measures of gender equality – the full-time gender pay gap, the number of women on corporate boards, the number of women MPs and government ministers – say relatively little or nothing about this glaring inequality and so do little to focus attention on it.

Gender equality initiatives such as the government’s ‘Think, Act, Report’ campaign or its goal for more women on boards concentrate corporate and political resources on ensuring talented women are not held back and on building pipelines to enable them to reach the highest levels.

Of course, this activity is important but the millions of long-term low paid women must not be forgotten – and the role that gender has played in making them so.

Most low paid women are in jobs that are undervalued and underpaid because they are viewed as ‘women’s work’ or suited to women who are carers too and so have constrained employment options. Jobs that have been associated with traditionally male breadwinners are more likely to attract better pay.

The undervaluation of women’s work won’t be addressed by focusing solely on initiatives to encourage women into higher paid, male-dominated areas. Substantially more money needs to be put into raising pay for those in the undervalued ‘women’s work’.

The demand for care workers, childminders, catering assistants and cleaners is not diminishing. As the TUC showed earlier this week a significant part of the net jobs growth for women in 2014 was in these kinds of jobs.

A TUC report launched today shows that the social care sector has accounted for the biggest share of net jobs growth for women since the recession and a million more care workers will be needed in the next decade according to some predictions. These are jobs that are vital for our economy and society and yet we hear time and again how the majority female workforce is poorly paid and ill-treated.

To complement the targets for getting women better represented at the top, it would be refreshing to see government and companies committing to targets for reducing the representation of women amongst the low paid. Not least because it is difficult to envisage how this would be achieved without increasing the pay rates for the jobs that they do.

With higher pay more men might be encouraged to consider working in social care or childcare and that would be a significant step forward for gender equality. Government, local authorities and corporations might also consider more seriously the gender impact of decisions to outsource caring, cleaning and catering services to the lowest bidder, instead of taking advantage of the low market value that has been traditionally given to this work.

Sally Brett is senior policy officer at the TUC

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