Category Archives: Women

From a health crisis to a labour crisis? Omicron, Brexit and labour shortages

by Dr Gabriella Alberti, Professor Chris Forde, Dr Gary Graham, Dr Ioulia Bessa, Dr Jo Cutter, Dr Zinovijus Ciupijus, Dr Marketa Dolezalova

The new wave of Covid-19 under Omicron is proving to be another massive challenge for frontline health services.

The Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, has highlighted a crisis on multiple fronts in the NHS, with a mix of rapidly increasing demand for emergency services, backlogs for operations and huge levels of staff absence creating massive pressures. Even the Prime Minister has admitted that the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed. The COVID-19 health crisis is once again highlighting and generating a crisis of labour provision.

Staff shortages across the health sector – from hospitals to social care – have been highlighted throughout the pandemic, for example in the 2020 State of Adult social care report. In Autumn 2021, GPs threatened to go on strike over workload challenges during the second vaccination effort.

Now, as Omicron spreads exponentially in the community, NHS providers declare they are at a crisis point not having sufficient staff to care for Covid and non-Covid patients. With the Government estimating that up to  25% of the workforce is expected to have to self-isolate in the next few weeks staffing pressures are likely to get even worse before they get better.

It is important to note, however, that the crisis of labour in health and a number of other sectors has deeper roots beyond the COVID pandemic. As we illustrated in our  August 21 blog, shortages of labour are entrenched in sectors like health, transport and hospitality, due to the end of free movement and a ‘Brexodus’ of workers since 2016. This has been worsened by the COVID crisis, through the non-return of the “missing million”  of EU nationals that left the UK during the first lockdown.

Yet, Brexit barely receives a mention in much of the mainstream media in commentaries on the impacts of the pandemic on work. In a notable exception, a recent FT survey of 100 economists highlighted the “lingering after-effects of Brexit” as a key likely contributor to a slower UK recovery in 2022 compared to other countries.  

These ‘lingering after-effects’ are likely to have profound effects on the UK labour market. Scrambling to deal with the labour crisis, the UK government has made temporary changes to the regulation of migration, announcing a visa scheme in the care sector to allow thousands of additional care workers to be recruited from abroad after it was revealed that more than 40,000 social care staff had left the sector in the second half of 2021.  

The new measures will start in the early months of 2022 with the new visa permits lasting at least 12 months with entailing the possibility of renewal, and for migrants to bring their dependants. In the meantime, the Department for International Trade is proposing visa relaxation for Indian citizens, under the mantra that this will facilitate trade deals with one of the world’s fastest-growing developing nations.

Are these measures an indirect admission that Brexit is not working as the government predicted? And will these measures work as designed? Is it sufficient to introduce new temporary immigration routes to fill gaps opened up by this grave labour shortage crisis?

In the first few months of our new ESRC funded project – LIMITS – led from the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change, at Leeds University Business School, we have mapped all the emerging changes to immigration rules in four key sectors: social care, hospitality, food and drink manufacture and warehousing/transport. Our goal is to look at the multiple and overlapping effects of  Brexit, the Brexodus of workers and Covid-induced disruptions.

Thousands of visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers were quickly introduced in 2021 after intense lobbying by the representatives of the transport and food manufacturing sector but with what results? A December news report highlighted the limited success of such measures in the past months, with immigration Minister David Foster admitting that less than 100 pork butchers applied for the 800 visas available. In transportation, despite a call for up to 5,000 HGV Drivers, only a handful took up available visas. These temporary visa schemes increasingly look like poor sticking plasters, which fail to recognise the deeper structural reasons behind labour shortages.

Our employer survey to be launched in the spring of 2022 across the 4 sectors of Warehousing, Hospitality, Social Care and Food Manufacturing will explore employer workforce strategies, including questions on whether employers are using and benefitting from temporary visa schemes post Brexit. Underlying questions that we consider in our LIMITS research are: will changes in immigration policy – even where dialogue occurs within sectors involving different stakeholders – be sufficient to bring migrant workers to the UK and address the crisis of labour.

As migration and work researchers, we also ask whether the government has taken into account the facts that the high cost of visa application and the increasing costs of living may make migration for work in the UK less appealing to those who have immediate and less burdensome work alternatives in the EU common market? Is a 12-month temporary visa really appealing enough to persuade workers to come to the UK in the post-Brexit environment? And how are current Covid travel restrictions and the overwhelmed NHS further discouraging migrants to move to the UK?

Research has shown that migrant labour mobility cannot be simply reduced to push and pull factors (or imagined as a tap being switched on and off at will according to the needs of the ‘national’ economy) but is embedded in much more complex networks and “migration infrastructures” that have longer and deeper roots in the ways in which migrants and their families evaluate and build their mobility plans and pathways.

These cultural, social and anthropological factors are often missed from policy analysis when migration is reduced to a mere outcome of changing demand and supply dynamics. The qualitative part of our 3-year research project will include interviews with migrant workers themselves who have chosen to stay or move to the UK in these critical times of labour mobility transitions.

The government is committed to a high wage, high skills and productivity economy based on developing the local workforce rather than relying on foreign labour. Critics argue that such a vision is built on “shaky foundations”. We note that this high skills scenario is often predicated on quite simplistic accounts of the ease with which employers might be able to automate key parts of their processes, as well as often rhetorical assumptions about the willingness or capacity of local workforces to join sectors of the economy that in fact remain typically low skilled, low paid and insecure.

Additionally, a highly fragmented training investment scheme, such as the one proposed in the most recent budget, may not allow for such a “high road” utopia to be trusted and adopted by employers. Some have called for a more fundamental overhaul of the skills system.

Policy outcomes and the economy at large may suffer dramatically from a very reductionist approach to labour mobility (as well as to local workforce planning and development). A more nuanced multi-dimensional, multi-scalar and multi-actor approach is needed to understand migration and skills policy. This is what we are pursuing in our research programme, recognising that labour and employment are regulated from both above and below and do not follow a purely functionalist logic.

If you would like to know more about the LIMITS project please contact Dr Gabriella Alberti (g.alberti@leeds.ac.uk)


Cut hours, not people: no work, furlough, short hours and mental health during COVID-19 pandemic in the UK.

Written by Dr Ioulia Bessa, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation & Change.

woman wearing eyeglasses in grayscale photography

Paid work is not only a source for income, it is also essential for good mental health. Apart from its financial benefits employment contributes positively on wellbeing and consistent with previous research even one day of paid work a week can make the difference and can boost mental health and life satisfaction. How has Covid-19 crisis impacted employment and consequently mental health in the UK?  Our recent research project shows that during the pandemic workers who are furloughed or worked reduced hours have better mental health than people who lost their jobs.

The Covid-19 pandemic risked plunging millions of workers into unemployment. To mitigate the damage of both unemployment and low mental health, the government introduced Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allowing for the furloughing of workers.

Despite the implementation of the CJRS, claimant count reached approximately 3 million while other individuals commenced working shorter hours. In a working paper with Dr Brendan Burchell and Dr Senhu Wang from Cambridge University, Dr Daiga Kamerāde from University of Salford and Professor Jill Rubery from University of Manchester, we illustrate that employers should cut hours not employees and utilise shorter working weeks to limit both unemployment and a rise in mental illness. Our analysis draws on the first and second waves (April and May 2020) of the Covid-19 Understanding Society dataset.

Covid-19 Understanding Society

Our research is based on very timely data. In April 2020 Understanding Society collected data on issues around health, caring responsibilities, employment and job seeking, training, financial situations, the division of domestic labor, life satisfaction, mental health and wellbeing, home schooling and travel to work – areas then extended in the following waves (May and June). In total 17,452 individuals participated in the first wave (April 2020) of the dataset and 14,811 in the second (May 2020).  The dataset offers an early opportunity to examine how far changes in employment status, work hours and involvement furlough job retention scheme are related to the likelihood of having mental health problems.

Who are those individuals whose mental health has been affected the most by the Covid-19 crisis?

Drawing on the April and May 2020 Understanding Society waves, findings reveal that those who were already unemployed, or have become unemployed during the Covid-19 crisis have been affected most.  Results show that leaving paid work is significantly related to poorer mental health. In contrast, having some paid work and/or some continued connection to a job, notably those who remained full- or part-time employed or were furloughed were found to have better mental health.

Results are slightly more pronounced when drawing on the May 2020 wave, as we find that about 27 per cent of those who stayed in full-time employment were in the “at risk” category for mental health.  This is a stark finding. Although there are no significant differences between those in full and part time jobs, those who have reduced from full-time to part-time hours, or those who have been furloughed, the rate increased by 54 per cent the probability of those being at the risk category for those who lost their jobs. There was very little difference for those who reduced hours from full-time to part-time, or stayed part-time, or who were furloughed. Individuals who have continued to work at least part time during the coronavirus lockdown have far fewer mental health problems than those who have lost their jobs, according to the most comprehensive study of workers across Britain during the pandemic.

Gender differences also prevailed. Although men’s mental health and wellbeing scores worsened between Wave 9 (2017-2019) and Covid-19 waves, for women the deterioration in mental health was twice that of men, shedding light on the pressures women have been experiencing to accommodate work, life and potentially caring responsibilities during the pandemic, or due to higher unemployment levels that have hit women more severely

Conclusions: Groups “at risk”, a gendered crisis and mental health levels  

The evidence is entirely consistent with our expectations based on earlier research: reducing hours does not have an appreciable effect on wellbeing, but redundancies has a very large effect — almost exactly doubling the probability of being in the highest risk group. It is also important to note that an overall deterioration in mental health compared to pre-pandemic levels had been much greater for women than for men.

The survey mirrors past reports on the stress caused by unemployment. It also highlights options for international policymakers seeking to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, including rising treatment costs for the NHS and still more fragile mental health services in lower-income countries.

Both short working hours and furlough job retention schemes can thus be seen to be effective protective factors against worsening mental health. However, the key issue is how to move beyond the furlough scheme. A v-shaped bounce back is not on the horizon and many sectors will, at best, move into partial activity. So, the need to avoid a huge increase in unemployment is just as vital with all the risk to mental health that that would entail. These findings point to the need to move towards sharing work more equitably, including introducing a shorter working week for all (except in those sectors under extreme pressure) in order to minimize the risk to mental health and well-being if those on furlough are now pushed into unemployment.

The working paper appeared in the Financial Times and in the Telegraph.

All in this together? How a decade of austerity cleared the way for Covid-19 in deprived urban areas

Tom Gillespie, Hallsworth Research Fellow, Global Development Institute and Kate Hardy, Associate Professor, University of Leeds

iStock-180887338-1080x675Addressing world leaders on Monday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that ‘it is humanity against the virus – we are in this together’. Sound familiar? ‘All in this together’ was the oft-repeated mantra used to justify cuts to public spending and welfare services during the Cameron-Osbourne austerity years.

Yet, much like austerity, we are clearly not all in this pandemic together. In England and Wales, people are dying from Covid-19 at twice the rate in deprived areas than in affluent areas. The UK government’s strategy during the critical period of early March was to allow coronavirus to spread through the population with a view to achieving ‘herd immunity’, an approach described by Johnson as taking the virus ‘on the chin’. Clearly, some people in some places have had to ‘take it on the chin’ a lot harder than others.

But why are Covid-19’s effects so geographically uneven? It’s austerity, stupid. Cuts since 2010 have had a disproportionately large impact on deprived urban areas. Quite simply, the areas with the highest death rate are also those that have been ravaged by a decade of austerity policies, creating poverty and vulnerability that is now combining with and amplifying the effects of the virus. As a result, having already borne the brunt of a decade of austerity, it is the poorest in society who are now disproportionately paying the price of the government’s disastrous Covid-19 strategy.

Take the London Borough of Newham: the worst affected by Covid-19 of all local authorities in England and Wales. Why might this be? To start with, Newham has experienced deeper than average cuts in funding from central government and has cut spending on public services by a third. In the area of housing, austerity has had particularly devastating consequences. Budget cuts combined with privatisation policies have led to a shrinking of the boroughs social housing stock and a growing number of people living in insecure, unregulated private rental housing (in 2016, the Conservative government voted against rules to ensure that rental accommodation is ‘fit for human habitation’, citing ‘unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords’).

This housing insecurity has combined with punitive policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and cuts to housing benefit to force low-income households into rent arrears, contributing to growing evictions and homelessness. In addition, Newham Council sought to capitalise on the 2012 Olympic games to gentrify the borough by redeveloping council estates, leading to the displacement of social housing tenants. As a result of this poisonous cocktail of local and national policies, Newham now has the highest rate of both evictions and households living in temporary accommodation in London.

Behind these depersonalised processes, first hand accounts of life in deprived areas can help us put the pieces together. Our research with people experiencing homelessness in Newham has shown that the living conditions in temporary accommodation, often in the private rented sector, exacerbates existing, and created new, health problems. Toni, a 22 year old, was living in temporary accommodation, sharing a single bedroom with her sister and 4 month-old baby. The poor quality accommodation was creating respiratory problems for her and her child: “The house [is] damp, I’m allergic to damp, it can affect my breathing, it’s not good for a newborn to be around damp”.

Rachel has been living in temporary accommodation for over two years with her young child, who had developed asthma during this time. She said, “I’ve got letters from doctors in Newham Hospital saying this house is not good for the family. We’ve both got bad asthma. It’s damp, the colour is changing – if you leave it for five days, it becomes green… Every winter my little one has to go to the hospital three or five times a month to stabilise her asthma’.

Angela, who had worked as a care worker for over 20 years had to stop work due to her health problem. Her asthma had developed into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the first stages of emphysema while she was living in temporary accommodation run by Newham Council: ‘when that mould came up, my breathing just went right down here. Then I put a complaint in about it and said I was going round the environmental health, next thing I know there’s someone up hoovering it all. And that’s what they’ve done ever since. Every day, someone comes up to hoover that. They’ve never treated it or nothing. And it’s black and white mould’.

It is clear from these accounts that living in poor quality temporary accommodation has a detrimental impact on the health of homeless people in Newham. The health problems described by Toni, Rachel and Angela constitute the frequently mentioned ‘underlying conditions’ which make people more vulnerable to dying from Covid-19, such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. This reveals that austerity is at least in part responsible for creating the social conditions in which these health problems multiply. This illustrates how ‘underlying health conditions’ (often implicitly used to diminish the importance of coronavirus deaths) are actively produced by policies that offload the cost of public spending cuts onto specific bodies.

A slow response to the coronavirus pandemic is part of the explanation for why the UK has one of the highest death tolls from COVID19 in the world. But 40 years of public housing privatisation, a decade of austerity, a culture of landlordism and a lack of protections for renters also have a lot to answer for. Just as overcrowding and a lack of access to sanitation and water in informal settlements are conditions that will enable Covid-19 to spread rapidly in the global South, housing poverty, exacerbated by 10 years of punitive austerity policies, is also shaping the uneven impacts of coronavirus in the UK.

Health funding should of course be diverted to deprived areas, but preventative social policy will also be necessary to address the underlying inequalities that make some people more vulnerable to dying of Covid-19 than others. Reversing austerity, investing in social housing and regulating the private rental sector will all be essential to avoid unnecessary deaths in the future. In the short-term, rents should be suspended to prevent a new wave of evictions and homelessness due to the economic crisis. In the longer term, a political movement that challenges the commodification of housing and prioritises public health over private property will be essential to stop the impacts of this -and future- pandemics falling most heavily on the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

Please feel free to use this post under the following Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Full information is available here.

Covid-19 and the impact on gender equality

5050-gender-500x298

By Dr Helen Norman,
Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change

Covid-19 is the worst public health crisis for a generation that it is fast becoming an economic crisis with gendered impacts. Although men make up three quarters of coronavirus critical care patients, women are at greater risk of contagion due to their higher concentration in frontline work. Of the ‘key workers’ identified by the UK government as essential to the provision of services during the pandemic, 60% are women.

The labour market

Women are more exposed to the risk of redundancy and low pay because of their precarious position on the labour market. Not only do women make up the majority of the UK’s low paid earners, they also comprise a higher proportion of those in part-time employment (74%), part-time self-employment (59%), temporary employment (54%) and on zero-hours contracts (54%). Women and low paid earners have also been some of the hardest hit by the shutdown of businesses. Women are around a third more likely to work in a sector that has now shut down with one in six (17%) female employees working in such sectors compared to one in seven (13%) of their male counterparts.

woman carrying her baby and working on a laptop

Care and domestic work

Women already do twice as much unpaid work at home so are more likely to assume the burden of additional caring responsibilities that has resulted from the closure of schools and nurseries. This is perpetuated by a persistent gender pay gap, which creates a financial logic for the second earner within a couple (usually the women) to reduce or exit paid work, as well as prevalent norms and beliefs about gender roles. Lone parents (90% of whom are women) are likely to find it even more difficult to reconcile work and care, particularly as access to informal networks of friends and family is restricted.
How has the government responded?

A ‘furlough’ salary retention scheme was introduced on 11 March, which will help some but not all – such as the self-employed. It is not possible to request furlough on a part-time basis – an option that would help both parents (within a two-parent household) to divide paid and unpaid work more equally. Where there is a choice, it makes more financial sense for the lower earner (i.e. usually the woman in a two-parent, opposite sex household) to request furlough so that the higher earner (i.e. usually the man) can continue to work. This has the potential to damage women’s earnings and career progression. The furlough scheme also risks pushing many lone parents and low paid earners into poverty because of the further reduction in pay. 45% of lone parents already live in poverty in the UK.

There is no right to be furloughed – both employer and employee have to agree. The recent surge in claims to Universal Credit may suggest that some employers are opting to make people redundant rather than furlough them, or they are reducing hours (and therefore income), which may force people who are in work to make a claim. From 16 March to the end of April, over 1.8 million people applied to Universal Credit – six times the usual claimant rate. This data is not sex disaggregated but women are more reliant on social security payments because of their disproportionate share of unpaid care and precarious position on the labour market.

What are the next steps?

It is important to consider the different economic positions of women and men in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the specific challenges that women face such as higher rates of poverty, the disproportionate load of unpaid domestic work and care and the increased risk of domestic violence and abuse.

The Women’s Budget Group rightly calls for a gender-sensitive approach to the crisis that also gives consideration to other marginalised groups such as the disabled and those already suffering race and ethnicity-based inequalities. It is positive that the Women and Equalities Committee have called an inquiry into the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 and the measures to tackle it are having on women and other marginalised groups. However, a more radical reassessment of how ‘low skilled’ work is defined and valued is needed, alongside a review of the systemic undervaluation of so-called ‘women’s work’ – such as cleaning and caring – which are critical jobs that continue to be undervalued and under paid.

Equal Pay @50: Making equal and fair pay a reality

JT Presentation

In December 2019, CERIC convened an event: ‘Equal Pay @50: Making Equal and Fair Pay a reality‘ in partnership with global law firm DLA Piper and the national charity The Equality Trust. A fantastic range of speakers included the regional secretary of the TUC, a CEO of a leading care service provider, the deputy leader of Leeds City Council, a leading employment QC (lawyer) and contributions from our very own team at CERIC. Professor Jenny Tomlinson shared her thoughts on the lack of progress in the area of equal pay; Professor Jane Holgate chaired the opening and closing sessions, while Dr Gabriella Alberti spoke about the experience of unequal pay in the public sector and acknowledged the University’s own existing gender pay gap.

What was amazing was the level of consensus from HR professionals, trade unionists, business and civic leaders, lawyers and academics that something must be done––and soon.

On 29 May 2020 it will have been unlawful, for 50 years, to pay women and men differently for work of equal value yet, there’s a persistent and stubborn problem of unequal pay. Some of this is because women are more likely to work part time (and part time roles tend to be lower paid) and some of it is because women face barriers to being appointed and promoted into more senior positions, but a significant part of the problem is that employers still use pay structures that allow discriminatory pay to exist.

A special mention must also go to out colleague in the law school, Professor Iyiola Solanke, who highlighted the issue of the intersection between gender and ethnic pay gaps.

A working group has now been established to see what are the next steps in challenging unlawful unequal pay. And finally, we cannot thank DLA Piper enough, the professionalism of their staff, and the quality of their contributions was only matched by the great facilities.

“Revolting Prostitutes” Book Launch

Book coverOn the 8th of November, CERIC hosted a panel discussion as a book launch event for the highly anticipated book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Mac and Smith are sex worker rights activists with SWARM and SCOT-PEP, and their book is a deeply researched yet highly accessible analysis of current sex work debates. Juno Mac is also known for her TED talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.

Revolting Prostitutes discusses current debates on sex work, national and international sex worker self-organisation, and how sex worker rights fit within an intersectional critique of inequality in society. Challenging both sides of the sex work debates in the UK (those who see sex work as a vocation and those who believe sex work is inherently violence against women), Mac and Smith argue that sex work is inherently violent not because of the sex involved, but because it is work.

CERIC is one of the leading research institutes in the UK when it comes to expertise on sex work as a topic of labour and work. The organiser and panel chair Lilith Brouwers is a CERIC postgraduate researcher into employment relations in sex work in England. Joining Juno Mac and Molly Smith on the panel was Nadine Gloss, CERIC postgraduate researcher into sex worker self-organisation and representation in Germany.

After an introduction of all panel members, Mac and Smith explained about the importance of seeing sex work as an issue of labour, and the influence this has had on their book. With an analysis of sex work as a form of labour, academics and activists can use a rights framework for their work, strengthening the demands sex worker organisations make of institutions like governments, police, NGOs and employers.

Nadine Gloss discussed the main obstacles she found in researching sex worker organisation: gaining access to and trust from sex workers and sex worker-led organisations. With any labour ethnographic research comes the challenge of finding participants willing to be observed within their organisation, but understandably sex workers are more wary than most of researchers misrepresenting their work.

Another point of discussion was the differences panel members had noticed between sex worker organising in the UK and in Germany. While sex worker led organisations in Germany aim to present sex work as a free choice – in response to discourses which present sex workers as victims – UK sex worker rights organisations identify closer to working class movements which do not present work as inherently positive. This identification specifically as workers also builds solidarity between other social movements such as the migrant rights, prison abolitionist, and LGBT+ rights movements.

After questions from attendants of the event, Mac and Smith were kind enough to sign copies of their book during the wine reception following the panel.

 

Building a Better Case for Women on Boards (by Cheryl Hurst, Postgraduate Researcher)

Over the last decade the concern for the underrepresentation of women in corporate boardrooms has steadily increased. The low number of women at the top of organisations has pushed the agenda for determining the circumstances and factors that both promote and impede women’s access to these top levels. In an effort to advocate for increasing the numbers of women on boards, research has tended to focus on the benefits women will bring to the company.

Often referred to as ‘The Business Case’, research in this area focuses on the importance of hiring from the complete talent pool; on the relationship between women and firm value; as well on the unique experiences and talents women characteristically can bring to organisational settings. Yet this ostensibly pragmatic emphasis, on connecting equality with the achievement of value related to organisational goals, is not as straightforward as researchers and policy makers make it seem.

Below, the challenges and concerns for the business case are addressed in the hopes of shifting dialogue to focus on the ideas of justice and fairness.

Changing Traditional Views of ‘Strengths and Experiences’

One of the main arguments delivered to companies is that by expanding their recruitment to include more women (and other minorities), organisations will benefit from the use of the untapped talent pool, bringing in different strengths and experiences (Seierstad, 2016). By pushing this argument it cannot be forgotten that women’s attributes may not fit within traditional ideas of what makes a successful board member.

This gives organisations the ability to argue against hiring from underrepresented groups, making the claim that they do not fit the requirements of the positions that need to be filled. Organisations have yet to widely adopt a view of ‘strengths and experiences’ that does not stem from the traditional model that values traits typically associated with men. This means that even as women accumulate varied experiences they may still not be viewed as appropriately qualified for the upper echelons of corporate leadership.

Previous and Existing Barriers

The focus on recruiting women solely as part of an effort to bring in new talent also ignores previous and existing barriers, including the discriminating tendencies of employers that women have faced throughout their academic and organisational careers.

Barriers may have resulted in women taking different avenues and approaches to the accumulation of ‘experiences.’  These different avenues, once again, do not reflect traditional perceptions of appropriate qualifications.  Without the qualifications traditionally thought of as necessary, there is a decreased chance of women being recruited, even if they have other relevant qualifications.

Those in top positions (predominantly men) who are responsible for a substantial amount of organisational rewards are still not offering equal promotions, pay rises, training, and networking opportunities to women as they are to men, again shaping the ‘strengths and experiences’ women are likely to have.

Performance Rationales

The focus on firm value has gone further, leading to performance related economic rationales for increasing women on boards. Since the early 2000’s research on board diversity and firm value has increased, showing positive relationships between the number of women and minorities on boards and an organisation’s value (Carter, Simkins, and Simpson, 2003).

The performance argument has been increasingly picked up in the media. In January of this year, the New York Times published an article asking: A Trillion-Dollar Question: Why Don’t More Women Run Mutual Funds? Again, the article conveys to readers that a mixed-gender team produces better returns. Similar articles have been published in The Guardian and Forbes, all using the ‘Business Case.’

Empirically, the argument that women increase performance is highly contested. Boards with higher numbers of women are shown to have been better performing boards overall, prior to and after hiring a more diverse range of members. This stresses the possible bias that better performing boards are able to focus more generally on diversity improvement from the start (Seierstad, 2016). While links have been found between increasing women on boards and company performance, the causality is disputed. This in itself demonstrates a need to move towards more concrete justice arguments.

Critics of the business case for increasing women on boards have also demonstrated that diversity management as a whole can actually be financially detrimental to organisations. There is a high cost to ‘diversity management’ techniques that are implemented unsuccessfully or without proper consideration (Noon, 2007). These costs are often related to high-turnover and absenteeism among women who do not feel welcome within the organisation or where proposed options for flexible working hours are not properly executed.

The business case also ignores how organisations benefit from the discrimination of women and minorities by exploiting their skillset and paying them lower wages than their white male counterparts (Noon, 2007). In even further divergence from the business case, research has highlighted that some countries and organisations have actually experienced negative consequences both in organisational performance and within capital markets after changing their existing board to include a more diverse range of people, with the potential of other attributing factors being overlooked (Bohren and Staubo, 2014).

Ideas of Justice and Fairness

While business case arguments have the overall goal of increasing women on boards, the presentation and ultimate message often becomes somewhat distorted when put into practice.  Instead, a focus on notions of justice and fairness in the advancement of diversity management will offer organisations and policy makers fewer avenues to refute the implementation of diversity strategies. The social justice rationale for increasing the representation of women is based on the principle that women represent half of the population and should therefore represent half of the boards in power (Seierstad, 2016; Dahlerup, 2005).

The social justice rationale does not disregard the potential economic benefits completely, but promotes/advocates a genuine commitment to equality and justice. Changing the argument is not positioned here as a complete solution, but reflects a necessary step in the pursuit of gender parity on corporate boards.  It is argued here that a sole (and contingent) focus on diversity for economic benefits negates the importance of changing views towards women in organisations because it is ethically just.

References

Bøhren, Ø. and Staubo, S., 2014. Does mandatory gender balance work? Changing organizational form to avoid board upheaval. Journal of Corporate Finance28, pp.152-168.

Carter, D.A., Simkins, B.J. and Simpson, W.G., 2003. Corporate governance, board diversity, and firm value. Financial review38(1), pp.33-53.

Dahlerup*, D. and Freidenvall*, L., 2005. Quotas as a ‘fast track’to equal representation for women: Why Scandinavia is no longer the model. International Feminist Journal of Politics7(1), pp.26-48.

Noon, M., 2007. The fatal flaws of diversity and the business case for ethnic minorities. Work, employment and society21(4), pp.773-784.

Seierstad, C., 2015. Beyond the business case: The need for both utility and justice
rationales for increasing the share of women on boards. Corporate Governance: An International Review.

AuthorCheryl Hurst, University of Leeds