Inequality between men and women in the workplace takes on many forms, including unequal pay, disparities in working hours and promotions, and differences in social norms and caring responsibilities. In celebration of International Women's Week, Sara Hassan, Charlotte Hoole and Abigail Taylor discuss women in the workplace and how inequality can affect various factors like childcare and flexible working. This blog is part of an International Women's Day series.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in the UK the average working-age woman earned 40% less than the average working-age men in 2019, and 19% less per hour. While this gap has closed in recent decades due to the catch-up in the educational attainment of women compared to men, policy, the economy, and society continue to disproportionately impact women in and out of the workplace (IFS, 2021). Gender pay gaps are especially large at the top of the pay scale, with women in the top 90th percentile of earnings being paid 77% of their male counterparts compared to 90% in the bottom 10th percentile (IFS, 2021). Women are underrepresented in positions of leadership and make up only 39% of the boards of Britain’s top 100 companies and 30% of those in UK management roles in the UK. The Reykjavik Index for Leadership measures the perceptions of both men and women about gender equality in leadership. In their latest report for 2021-22, the Index stands at 73 (where a value of 100 would indicate that men and women are equally suited for leadership) for G7 countries, showing how societal prejudice towards men being more suited for leadership roles still remains in society. Studies in the US have also shown how women are less likely to be promoted than men.
The past five decades have seen important increases in women’s employment. For example, the proportion of women of working age in employment rose from 53% in 1971 to nearly 72% in 2021. Over the same period, the male employment rate has fallen from 91% to 78%. This is also true for mothers, with three in four mothers with dependent children in the UK in work between April-June 2021. Mothers are also now less likely to work part-time, with the proportion of employed mothers working full-time generally increasing with the age of their youngest child. However, despite increases in the proportion of employed mothers, considerably fewer mothers than fathers currently work. Possible reasons for this include men in families being less likely to adjust their working arrangements than women. Analysis of the Annual Population Survey reveals women are more likely than men to choose to work part-time to spend more time with family.
Research also indicates employed women with dependent children continue to spend more time than men on unpaid housework and caring responsibility. In 2019, a study led by Professor Anne McMunn at University College London found that “women still do the bulk of housework, even in couples with similar levels of education, time in paid work and shared beliefs about gender roles”. They conclude that gender inequality and gender norms remain strong when it comes to housework and caring. On the issue of caring responsibilities, research carried out by the Centre for Progressive Policy revealed that in the UK, women provide 450 million hours of unpaid childcare each week in contrast to 186 million hours by men. They also find that unpaid care work for adults also disproportionately impacts women. Furthermore, they find that millions of women in the UK are prevented from taking on more hours of work, new roles and different jobs due to a lack of flexible working options available to them. Charities such as Pregnant Then Screwed and Mother Pukka are campaigning for change in this area.
The landscape of flexible working in the UK
- job sharing,
- working from home,
- working part-time,
- working compressed hours (where employees work full-time hours over fewer days),
- annualised hours (where employees work a specified number of hours over a year but have some flexibility over then work these hours).
- staggered hours (where employees have start, finish and break times from other employees)
- phased retirement.
The timeline below shows how maternity and flexible working rights have been built up gradually over the last six decades. The laws are designed to ensure employment protection and equality. Following the UK joining the EU in 1972, EU provisions were frequently translated into UK law until 2020 when the UK left the EU. The UK preceded the EU in introducing some policies such as flexible working rights.
Figure 1: Key milestones in maternity and flexible working rights in the UK
1957 EU Treaty of Rome – Established principles of freemovement of people, goods, services and capital
1970 Equal Pay Act – enshrined the right to pay equality between women and men.
1975 Sex Discrimination Act – protection from discrimination on grounds of sex of marital status
Mid and late 1970s
1975 Employment Protection Act – limited rights to maternity leave and pay. Right to work after maternity leave. Dismissal unfair if due to pregnancy or maternity
1975 Race Relation Act – protection from discrimination on race grounds
1976 EU Equal Treatment Directive – established principle of equal treatment for men and women in access to jobs, training and working conditions
1992 EU Pregnant Workers Directive Granted maternity leave for 14 weeks of which 2 weeks must occur before birth. Established women must not be dismissed from work due to pregnancy or maternity leave. Introduced paid time off for antenatal care.
1993 EU Working Time Directive – maximum 48-hour working week, right to rest period, right to a minimum amount paid holiday.
1995 Disability Discrimination Act – projection from discrimination in emploment on grounds of disability
1996 Employment Rights Act – paid time off or antenatal care. Protection for individuals made redundant whilst on maternity leave
1997 EU part-time work Directive – established part-time workers must not be treated less favourably than full time workers
2000 EU General Framework Directive
2000 EU Race Discrimination Directive
2002 Employment Act – introduced 2 weeks paid paternity leave, adoption leave, right to request flexible working for parents
2006 Work and Families Act – extended maternity leave to 52 weeks, introduced additional paternity leave, extended right to request flexible working to carers
2010 Equality Act – consolidated and strengthened equality legislation, made provision for gender pay reporting
2014 Children and Families Act – introduced Shared Parental Leave, extended rights to unpaid parental leave, extended rights to adoption leave and pay, right to request flexible working extended to all employees
Flexible working in the UK was first introduced in 2003 when the UK Government introduced the ‘right to request flexible working’ for parents and certain other carers. Since 2014, all employees with at least 26 weeks of continuous employment, regardless of parental or caring responsibilities, can apply for flexible working. The right to request flexible working does not extend to all categories of workers, for example, certain agency workers are not entitled to apply for flexible working. For those who are eligible, applications must be made in writing and employers are required to consider flexible requests in a ‘reasonable manner’ and are expected to generally make a decision within 3 months of receiving the request.
Numerous reports have emphasised the business case for employers investing in flexible working. For example, a recent report for Mother Pukka and Sir Robert McAlpine found that “current levels of flexible working already deliver a £37 billion-a-year boost to the UK” and that “by increasing flexible working rates by 50 per cent, its value could rise from £37 billion to £55 billion”. Benefits of flexible working cited by the CIPD include improved engagement, job satisfaction and loyalty; reduced absenteeism and improved well-being; and improved employee retention and progression.
Does it take a village to raise a child? The importance of flexible working for women with children
The African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” sends the message that it takes the support of many people (“the village”) to provide a safe, healthy environment for children. This implies that parents, siblings, extended family members, neighbours, teachers, professionals, community members and policymakers, all share a responsibility to care for a child. In the past, in many countries including the UK, direct care to the children and/or support to the parent in looking after their children was provided. However, the village, today, looks very different, communities are fragmented and dissipated. Many individuals are increasingly isolated and are not eager or keen to ask for, or provide help to, others. Studies show that migration, family breakdown, economic pressures, long working hours, and increased mobility have all contributed to families feeling less connected to extended family members and others around them. The social networks that women relied on are nowadays very different.
Direct social networks are usually complemented by having reliable childcare. However, in the UK the real costs (see the 2022 Working Families Index) of childcare are prohibiting many women from having a fulfilled work arrangement whether it’s flexible or not. During lockdown in 2020 and until now many women struggle with the burdens of care making them vulnerable in the labour market. Not to mention, the massive disparity between parental leave for men vs women that further complicates those inequalities directly affecting women’s work and career progression.
As discussed in another City-REDI blog, the UK stands out compared to other countries in terms of the high cost of childcare, and inequalities in childcare use across income groups. Consequently, childcare can be a barrier to employment for parents, particularly women. Within this context, providing flexible working is important in offering parents additional options to balance looking after their children and pursuing their careers. Alongside investing in childcare infrastructure, companies could foster employee engagement, satisfaction and retention by taking a proactive approach to flexible working.
Nonetheless, it is also important to recognise the need for flexibility among all women including those without children or other care responsibilities. Evidence from the Working from Home during COVID-19 Lockdown Project, led by Professor Heejung Chung from the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, and Dr Holly Birkett and Dr Sarah Forbes from Birmingham Business School, suggests that demand for flexible working rose among non-parents during lockdown as they saw the advantages of working more flexibly. However, research conducted by Krystal Wilkinson from Manchester Metropolitan University indicates that non-work parents can be reluctant to request flexible working or other changes at work due to being unfamiliar with how the law has changed to extend flexible working rights to non-parents and carers.
Many policy interventions can help address these issues including incentivising men to share caring responsibility through paternity pay and shared parental leave. Studies suggest that well-paid paternity leave provision and affordable childcare are key to addressing gender inequalities. This will also address issues of male-dominant workplaces and women being less visible in the workplace because of flexible working which has detrimental effects on women’s promotions and opportunities for progression. Recently, the UK government announced reforms that enable flexible working arrangements as a default right for both men and women allowing equal opportunity.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.