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Women’s work: we should be paid properly


Pro Bono Economics, report, women's unpaid work, gender pay gap, Caroline Criado Perez, after lockdownBefore the lockdown, the UK’s women were underpaid by £126 billion.

What can we expect when the world wakes up again?

In the post-pandemic world of work, might we return to something better than normal by closing the gender gaps that have prevailed over the last half century? This is the big question being asked in a new report just published by charity Pro Bono Economics.

Their report claims that the official gender pay gap of 8.9 per cent includes a direct ‘pay penalty’ for being female that amounts to £1,190 a year for every woman of working age in the UK.

But the study argues that the full extent to which women’s work is undervalued is even greater, because of the much higher share of unpaid tasks that women undertake in households.

The unpaid work done by women aged 16-65 – including such tasks as childcare, cooking and cleaning – is worth £4,840 more a year than the unpaid work carried out by men of the same age.

This means that the average woman finds her work being undervalued by just over £6,000 a year. And collectively, the UK’s working-age women are losing out on £126 billion each year, a sum which represents just under half (47 per cent) of the £267 billion paid in total to female employees in 2019.

The Pro Bono Economics report, ‘Women’s Work: policy, pay, progress and the penalties that remain’, details the gains made by women in the labour market over the last half century – with, for instance, the gap between male and female employment rates narrowing from 38 percentage points in the early 1970s to 8 percentage points at the end of 2019.

But it also highlights the need to narrow the substantial gender gaps that persist in relation to job quality, pay and the burden of unpaid work.

Pre-pandemic, women accounted for 47 per cent of all those in paid employment, and for 50 per cent of all employees.

Yet they comprised 74 per cent of people working part-time, 54 per cent of people on a temporary contract, 56 per cent of people on a zero-hours contract, and 61 per cent of low-paid employees.

Women also spent 60 per cent longer than men each week undertaking unpaid work.

Pro Bono Economics points out that public policy has played an important role in narrowing the gap between men and women in the formal workplace over the last 50 years, but argues that a new policy focus now needed.

The organisation says it has found evidence of an appetite for change among the public in this regard.

Notably, 54 per cent of those polled as part of Pro Bono Economics’ study said they would be prepared to disclose their salary details if it helped to narrow the gender pay gap.

Just 9 per cent said they wanted to keep the current uneven balance of unpaid work across men and women.

Two in five said their preference was for some form of basic income payable to those with caring responsibilities.

Developing the right policy interventions rests on securing better data, Pro Bono Economics said, citing a strong case for including questions about unpaid work in government statistical studies.

Matt Whittaker, Chief Executive of Pro Bono Economics and co-author of the report, said: “Massive though it is, the economic shock associated with today’s crisis should prove temporary.

“In the fullness of time, economic activity should return to something like normal and we might then expect past labour market trends to reassert themselves.

“But the transformative effects of the crisis should not be underestimated.

“Millions of people now find themselves reliant on the state for their income, and there is a new respect for men and women working in lower-paying roles – from nurses to supermarket cashiers to refuse collectors.

“Family dynamics are also shifting as parents juggle the demands of home-working and childcare, and there is an upsurge in volunteering as people support efforts to tackle the crisis at both a national and a neighbourhood level.

“There is, then, a real possibility that the UK will ultimately emerge from today’s turmoil a more united country.

“We are likely to achieve a greater understanding of the economic pressures arising from entirely unexpected changes in circumstances, and consequently a greater understanding of each other.

“The lockdown might also lead to a change in attitudes to the balance between paid work and home life, and between the demands of economic ‘activity’ and the need for a focus on wider wellbeing.

“Ultimately, we have the chance not simply to return to normal, but to return to something better.”

Caroline Criado Perez, journalist, activist and author of the bestselling book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men’, said: “Women’s unpaid work has, historically, been invisible.

“Excluded from official GDP figures, it has been taken for granted by successive governments, and seen as a costless resource to exploit.

“But as this report shows, women’s unpaid work has a significant economic value — and our failure to account for it has consequences for us all.

“An accurate measure of the economy is crucial to drawing up effective economic policy; by depending on a GDP figure that is compromised by a gender data gap, successive governments have allocated resources inefficiently.

“This has compounded women’s over-representation in low-paid, part-time and insecure work, and had a knock-on negative effect on tax revenue.

“It has also made women more exposed to the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which has magnified already existing social inequalities.

“But there is room for hope,” she continued.

“COVID-19 has forced the UK to reckon with the huge amount of unpaid and low-paid work this country relies on, and which is predominantly done by women.

“Meanwhile, the new data presented in this report shows that a majority of us are open to recognising the true value of “women’s work”.

“By making this work more visible than ever, this pandemic brings with it the hope that we can return to something better than normal. All we need is the data — and the political will to act on it.”

To read the full report, click here.

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