Left and behind: women at work


This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

In the run-up to the General Election, we will hear more about the need for a relentless focus on building a stronger economy in the UK – an economy that works for everyone. If we are really serious about a mission-based approach to our economy, we need to commit to building gender equality into our economic strategies, both at a combined and local authority level and with an appreciation of how gender intersects with other structural factors such as ethnicity, class, disability and age.

Recent research by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) suggests the UK may be losing as much as £88.7bn every year from our economy due to the disadvantages women encounter in the labour market. This leads to under-employment and lower pay. It is the equivalent to the annual contribution of the UK’s financial services sector.

We also calculated the loss at a regional level showing that in Greater London alone the cost of the disadvantages women encounter is more than £16bn.

“better economic outcomes for everyone”

This is a huge opportunity loss for our economy and completely unnecessary. If we were to put women at the heart of our economic strategies not only does that start to address gender inequality, but we can secure better economic outcomes for everyone, including higher living standards, reductions in child poverty and a stronger labour market that is more productive.

Our research also revealed the very real barriers women continue to face in their neighbourhoods. This impacts on them being able to secure sustainable employment, and includes child care, housing, domestic abuse and a lack of flexibility and representation in the workplace. For too long there has been an assumption that if we grow the economy then improvements to the barriers women face will follow

“gender equality and diversity as a critical part of our inclusive economic strategy”

However, if we are to build a strong and inclusive local economy, then gender equality and diversity need to be built into the strategic approach, rather than as one line in an action plan. We need to ensure we are increasing the flow, circulation and ownership of wealth in our communities. There are many ways local authorities, combined authorities, health organisations and others can begin to approach economic questions through the lens of gender equality. As a starting point, including gender equality and diversity as a critical part of our inclusive economic strategy is fundamental.

For example, during this project, we worked with Leeds City Council. It used the opportunity of refreshing the city’s inclusive growth strategy to build gender into the strategy’s objectives.

It is also instructive to create an understanding of a place’s economy through the lens of gender.

In Leeds, our analysis of the city’s economy demonstrated the over-dominance of women in key sectors such as health, education and social care. It also revealed the £10,000 gender pay gap in the city and that healthy life expectancy for women continues to fall year-on-year.

“develop a mission-based approach to tackling gender equality”

As in cities like Leeds and Birmingham, where there are active anchor partnerships between place-based organisations, there is also an opportunity to develop a mission-based approach to tackling gender equality, particularly with partners like the NHS, where women are often over-represented within employment.

This is a huge opportunity to improve the economic conditions of women through pay, conditions and flexibility as well as the wider multiplier effects on the local economy that higher pay for women, particularly those on low incomes can deliver.

Despite the strides in gender equality in recent decades, for many women, particularly those on the lowest incomes, there is much work still to be done.

However, if we can get this right, the economic legacy of an inclusive economy that works for all women is huge, not just for us now, but for our daughters and granddaughters.