As much as people try, gender equality is not a principle anyone can argue with. Gender-equal societies and workplaces are as smart as they are right. Not only do they outperform unequal ones, but gender equality is also associated with better decisions and more inclusive outcomes.
But as with all values, gender equality needs a consistent, concerted effort, especially if it is to become a routine and a non-controversial part of our society.
In September, when the nation’s third-ever female Prime Minister took to the helm, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be a time when gender equality would be defended. However, as Rosie Beacon so brilliantly put in a recent article, it is important not to confuse the female body for a feminist mind. We only have to look back at Margaret Thatcher’s leadership to see the consequences of indifference towards gender equality.
The truth is, if people in politics do not recognise the differential impacts of policy on women, they will fail to deliver measures that make real change. Women will continue to be punished for simply being women. A punishment that will be felt more deeply in an economic crisis.
A government policy at the detriment of women and part-time workers
Women, in particular, are less financially resilient in a crisis. They make up the majority of the part-time workforce. Women make less and save less because they have less time to participate in the paid labour market. Care responsibilities, whether child care or the care of family members are primarily carried by women.
In fact, of the economically inactive population who want a job, 33% of women declare to be looking after their family or home, versus 9% of men. And for women in full-time employment, full-time childcare for two-year-old or younger children takes nearly half of the median earnings and two-thirds for those in part-time (ONS).
So, at a time when the cost of living is increasing at nearly its fastest rate in 40 years, and families are struggling to make ends meet, it was quite extraordinary to see the Truss government introduce a policy at the detriment of those who are feeling the squeeze the most – part-time workers, and subsequently women.
In a bid to reverse inactivity in the labour market, then Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, used September’s “mini-budget” to announce a tightening of rules that could result in a cut to the benefits of part-time workers unless they work longer hours (for individuals who work up to 15 hours a week and 24 hours for couples) or take action to increase their earnings.
The consequences for women could be catastrophic
If rolled out, the policy will punish the people stuck in a broken system. And it would make part-time workers responsible for wider economic issues when in reality, the system is at fault.
For many part-time workers, it is not possible to increase working hours. Many would struggle because of health problems, caring commitments and other constraints. You cannot force people to work longer hours when they cannot physically do so. The short and long-term consequences could be catastrophic for the 120,000 people, many of them women, who this policy is set to impact.
Kwarteng called this policy a “win-win” and was convinced it would boost income for families. In reality, it would be a lose-lose and would likely do nothing to help the economy.
With the prospect of facing financial punishment for working part-time, many women would be forced to decide whether to be part of the labour market. It will be a tough decision for those who would love to work more but come up against barriers to doing so.
Others would lose the benefits they rely on when household bills are increasing, as well as the routine and satisfaction of work that is proven to improve mental health. I have no doubt such a policy would result in many families being unable to pay the bills, adding to the emotional strain in an already challenging time.
Not to mention the impact on the labour force. It’s been proven time and time again that diverse societies and organisations are more profitable and have better outcomes. Without women in the workforce, we risk more than failing to move the needle of equality, we risk it sliding back.
How organisations can support part-time workers and women in the workplace
It’s worth noting that part-time workers are twice as likely than full-time workers to be stuck on low pay. That’s because very few decently paid jobs are advertised as flexible or part-time. The result is many women, and part-time workers are stuck working below their skill level because jobs are not available.
And when we look at the biggest problems in the labour market, we can see many people are out of work because of problems such as ill-health and childcare costs, whilst many people who work are trapped in poverty. This policy announced by the then Truss government would fail to get to the bottom of this issue. Instead, it may well exacerbate it.
With an ambivalent government that is not just doing little to support women and part-time workers but is happy to actively introduce policies that discriminate against them, we need to look elsewhere. There are many measures organisations can introduce to make a tangible difference and help make a positive contribution to gender equality.
More flexible jobs at a higher wage will help to do what Truss is trying to do without punishing the people stuck in a system that is not working. Organisations should advertise skilled and executive jobs part-time, allowing for flexibility in their roles. They should also pay part-time workers fairly and in line with full-time workers. Why crowd them at the bottom of the labour market when they have the skills to do more?
To help prevent employees from leaving the labour market, organisations should look to offer healthcare, particularly mental health support, as part of their employee benefits package. It is crucial the same level of care is offered to part-time workers.
As I write this, a new Chancellor has been appointed, and we’re seeing huge u-turns on the policies announced in September’s mini-budget. Not to mention, Truss has just resigned as the nation’s Prime Minister.
We do not yet know if this policy will stand. But what we can be sure of is that policies like this do little to build equality in the labour force – an equality that is crucial to building better outcomes for people everywhere. Without feminist thinking that moves beyond symbolism, society will not reap the rewards of true gender equality.