Gender inequality and community wealth building: where are we now?

Four key takeaways

At CLES, we host monthly communities of practice (CoPs) for three sectors – housing associations, the NHS and local government – which bring together practitioners working at a local level to share  and develop practice on advancing community wealth building. To mark International Women’s Day we themed this month’s sessions on how community wealth building can be mobilised to tackle gender inequality. Here we draw out four key themes from the discussions and pose the question, where next for gender equality in community wealth building?

The picture is familiar but the scale of the issue is shocking

Across all three CoPs, participants were familiar with national statistics on the gender pay gap. Less well known was the combined impact of pay inequalities and the housing crisis: in no English region is the average home to rent affordable to single women on median earnings whereas all areas bar London and the South East are affordable to single men. This also presents gendered barriers to home ownership along with impacts on pension accumulation – meaning that women overall accumulate less wealth than men.

Participants were alive to the intersectional nature of gender inequality. But here too the scale of the issues was shocking – disabled women have the lowest pre-tax household incomes, not a single CEO of a FTSE 100 company or a civil service permanent secretary is a woman of colour, and surveys rarely disaggregate sexuality data by sex, meaning gay men’s needs and wishes are often extrapolated onto lesbian women.

Local perspectives are crucial to understanding this problem

The local perspectives of practitioners deepen our understanding of how gender inequality plays out in local economies. One attendee described a construction employment project where the women who were interested in completing the training were unable to do so as the training was held on weekdays from 9am-5pm, however most of the women had part-time jobs so were unable to participate. In the NHS CoP, there was much discussion on the restrictive and unfair nature of NHS pay bands. Finally, in local government, discussion of the failures of local Green New Deals to incorporate the perspectives of women compelled attendees to think about their own strategies. In one example, a local government officer described an economic development approach which had set out to foreground the interests of women and other marginalised groups. In practice, however, the only enduring tangible outcome of this was a small-scale project for lone parents.

While good work exists, in too many cases gender mainstreaming remains a distant dream

Almost all participants could point to examples of targeted activity to address economic inequality for women and girls in their areas. We heard about support for lone parents and carers to return to work, highly effective programmes to increase the representation of women in the construction sector and work to drive up terms and conditions for workers in the care sector through progressive commissioning practice. We heard examples of housing associations committed to diversifying voices in the room around retrofit to ensure that new problems are avoided and old inequalities are not exacerbated.  However, there was a widely held view that these targeted activities are too often marginal to mainstream programmes and “the consequences of [gender equality] being an add on have been seen in the starkest terms during the pandemic”.

Community wealth building offers potential for an all-encompassing response

Participants in all three sessions were alive to the imperative to replace piecemeal initiatives with more rounded responses to the persistent and deep-rooted inequalities in their economies. It was clear there is significant interest in gender inequality, but the deep-rooted logics and inertias of much economic development is such that gender and its intersectionalities are often reduced to marginal projects. In the sessions we saw a glimpse of how community wealth building could be used to build all-encompassing local approaches, by mobilising the full gamut of Community wealth building tools to address wealth inequalities for women. This might mean using public spending to drive up pay and conditions for women in low paid sectors, action to end the gender pay gap in anchor institutions and beyond, tailored business support for the development of alternative models of ownership in sectors where women are highly represented and much, much more.

Critically all of this needs to be built by and for women, as leaders and co-designers. We have seen local authority areas beginning on that journey, including Clackmannanshire and Newham Councils, both of whom have committed to putting gender equality at the centre of their economic approach. Our familiarity with the shocking statistics on gender inequality should not lead us to complacency.