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Gender inequality in the labour market in the UK

The analysis of gender inequality in labour market outcomes has received substantial attention from academics of various disciplines. The distinct literatures have explored, often from differing perspectives and approaches, the various forms of inequality women experience in the labour market. Moreover, the issues and challenges the increasing participation of women in paid work poses has resulted in a substantial interest by policy makers, in many areas of policy, including taxation and benefits, health, caring, the provision of early years’ services, school and higher education.

The gender employment rate gap decreased by almost 30 percentage points since 1971, when data started to be recorded in the Labour Force Survey (LFS).  Educational attainment gaps have not only narrowed over recent decades but girls’ education has overtaken that of boys.  However, the labour market outcomes of women, both the jobs they do and the pay they receive, often do not reflect their personal qualification levels, at least relative to men, nor their improvement in recent years. There remain gender differences in pay that cannot be explained by educational attainment or other relevant factors, a sign perhaps that the labour market is failing to make the best use of women’s talents. The reasons for this inefficiency are numerous and complex.

We know that labour market inequality between men and women start earlier than entry into the labour market; and that, although gender gaps might not be very prominent in the early labour market years, they widen later on, and particularly important is the impact of having children and the associated career break. For example, the very distribution of where women and men work in the economy, both in terms of sectors and occupations, may not only lead to gender inequality directly, but is also inexorably linked to the subject choices boys and girls make at school.  We know that segmentation in the occupations men and women do is substantial, and explains a large and increasing proportion of the gender pay gap, but the inequality within occupations is much wider. Similarly, although the gender pay gap for those in full time work is about 20%, the pay gap between low and high paid women is substantially higher. Gender interacts with other factors to create substantial inequalities. Reasons also include inequality within the household, and the constraints and barriers that an unequal distribution of labour in household production generates on women’s likelihood of participating in paid work. The latter is also linked related to the fiscal policies as well as social attitudes.

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One Pound by Richard Cawood. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via flickr.

What does this all mean for policy? In devising policy approaches and solutions, I think it is important to start from where there seems to be at least some good degree of consensus on the evidence. In fact, despite differences arising from disciplinary backgrounds, philosophical and political perspectives and methodological approaches, it appears that we have some overlapping consensus amongst scholars that:

  • gender inequality in the labour market is the product of many factors, most notably of a structured system of institutions and norms in which gender plays a very important part. The issues are complex, manifold and interrelated;
  • within group inequality are very large, which means we need to look at the interaction between gender and other and characteristics;
  • gender inequality have an important life-cycle dimensions, starting at school, going on during the transition into the labour market and then motherhood.

These are of course only starting points for policy makers. However, they do lead to the following considerations. First, the complexity mentioned above might have meant that policy makers have aimed to tackle various issues with separate discrete policies, in many instances failing to see the links between the issues. I would argue instead that such complexity does not justify separate discrete policies but a more targeted approach on a limited number of key variables, about which deep knowledge of how they relate to others is essential. More specifically, this means less of a proliferation of separate, discrete interventions and more of a set of targeted interventions that aim to address the key labour market inequalities.

Secondly, I would argue that the evidence on within-group inequality, the interaction of various factors, combined with the way gender inequality in the labour market develops through the life cycle, all suggests for a policy approach that is more sensitive to individual circumstances, recognises the variations around averages and therefore focuses on targeted, individual support, moving away from aggregate targets (i.e. all women, all mothers, all school girls). This is certainly more difficult but I do think unavoidable if we want to ensure greater success towards gender equality.

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