Category Archives: Women

Covid-19 and the impact on gender equality

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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